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Old Boy’s Prediction Proved Right Thirty Years Later

Friday, 02 October 2015

Almost thirty years ago, Sir Harry Kroto predicted that ‘buckyballs’ – the C60 molecule Buckminsterfullerene which he and his team discovered in 1985 – was the answer to a mystery dating back to 1922. He has now been proved right.

A young astronomy graduate student called Mary Lea Helger (later Mary Lea Shane) in 1922 reported that an unknown substance was absorbing specific frequencies of light from faraway stars. She had discovered what scientists now call ‘diffuse interstellar bands’ or DIBs. In 1987, Sir Harry predicted that the C60 carbon molecules he had discovered are responsible for this phenomenon, because they would be very stable in the interstellar medium and could survive the high radiation field.

In 1993, Sir Harry’s close friend John Maier, along with other researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland, created space-like conditions in a lab and found that a unique buckyball – the positively charged C60+ – absorbs light at the right frequencies. However, Maier and his critics were not satisfied with the setup, and so since then, he has been trying to more faithfully recreate the harsh, interstellar environment.

Almost twenty years later, Maier finally managed to create a simulation of space to the satisfaction of himself and his critics. At a symposium celebrating the 30th anniversary of the discovery of C60, Maier announced the identification of C60+ as the carrier of two diffuse interstellar bands. He also published an article in Nature detailing his laboratory results.

Sir Harry is delighted that his prediction has been proved correct after almost thirty years.

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John Maier, Sir Harry Kroto and Don Huffman at the symposium where the discovery was announced (photo by Jon Hare)

John Maier, Sir Harry Kroto and Don Huffman at the symposium where the discovery was announced (photo by Jon Hare)