In 1987, my alma mater hosted a chemist from the University of Sussex named Sir Harold Kroto. I was fortunate enough to sit in on his lecture which detailed a collaboration between Dr. Kroto and two chemists from Rice University, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. During the lecture, Dr. Kroto showed a box with a soccer ball inside of it. He closed the lid and waved his hand; when he opened the box the soccer ball had vanished and been replaced by a plastic model of a molecule with 60 points joining pentagons and hexagons, similar in shape to a soccer ball. The plastic model was of C60, a new form of carbon discovered by Kroto, Smalley, and Curl, for which they would eventually share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
This new molecule also resembled the geodesic dome, a structure popularized by an American architect from Chicago name Richard Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was not the original inventor of the geodesic dome, but he developed and popularized the idea in the 1940s, eventually receiving a U.S. patent for it. Fuller was interested in the geodesicdome because it was extremely strong for its weight and because a sphere has the largest volume with the least surface area. He envisioned using the geodesic dome in all types of structures: houses, cars, museums, etc. C60 was given the common name buckminsterfullerene (buckyball for short) in honor of Buckminster Fuller’s work.
Since the discovery of buckyballs, a number of different forms of similar carbon clusters have been isolated and explored. It is now known that these types of carbon clusters can occur as nanotubes, polymers, onion-type structures, and linked-dimers to name a few. This family of carbon clusters is now referred to as “fullerenes.” The study of fullerenes has burgeoned into a whole new field of chemistry.
So why did I recently remember Sir Harold’s magic trick with a buckyball and the field of fullerenes? Because I discovered an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art called Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe. This is the first major US exhibition of Fuller's work in 35 years. What’s really cool about the exhibit is that you can go to the MCA’s website, download mp3 files, load them onto your own mp3 player, and bring it with you to the exhibit so that you can get a free audio tour of the exhibit. What’s even cooler is that the audio tour is narrated by Jaime Snyder, Buckminster’s grandson! The exhibit has been so popular that is was recently extended until July 5th. So, if you are interested in seeing where the science of fullerenes intersects with the art of Buckminster Fuller, head to the MCA and check it out.