The Meccano Man
Professor Sir Harry Kroto talks to Shirley Dent about humanism, incredible molecules and building a better world.
The detours were unexpected and intriguing. Beautiful Sussex is, it seems, beset by ramshackle roadworks, devilish diversions and breakdown black-spots. Luckily, Professor Sir Harry Kroto is an innovative navigator. Born in 1939 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and brought up in Bolton, Lancashire, Sir Harry still retains a smidgeon of North Country accent. But Sussex seems to have suited him, lecturing at the University of Sussex since 1967, and staying through a succession of professional accolades, being made professor in 1985, a Royal Society Research Professor in 1991 and awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. Sussex, however, was just backdrop compared to the inner detours that this conversation with Sir Harry took.
"Because I know something about chemistry" (this off-the-cuff understatement is not unusual but beware, the passion can flare suddenly) "I have this feeling of the abstract world." And what a feeling it is. This is a man concerned with a sense of touch in the world and the ability to be touched. The ability to get connected with the wonder of science, of language, of being human.
"Science and scientists see the world differently and they talk about the world in the language of science. This can be a problem. If I talk about benzene, I already know everything about it. When I talk about Macbeth and you talk about Macbeth, you just have to say Macbeth and I capitalise on all your knowledge its place in English literature, Shakespeare's fantastic ability to use words, and also his ability to see deep into the human psyche and spirit to create a character who was half very good and half very bad. But unless you had read Macbeth, you wouldn't know what I was talking about, you'd have to go back and read it. And the same is true of chemistry. It's just not possible to explain in general some of the important factors of science without that background knowledge, without that language."
The language of science has to be learned in Sir Harry's view, like any other language. And he is a hard taskmaster where science is concerned. "People say that scientists don't work hard enough to explain what they've done to the public. I don't fully accept that. I think there is a problem that the public don't fully realise and recognise how hard it is to become a scientist, to learn the language of science that is necessary to truly understand it. To think you can understand many important aspects of science without that effort is, I believe, fallacious. I think the difficulty is self-evident in the problem of the public understanding of science an experimental observation?"
His views on education are not so much back-to-basics as scrap-it-and-start-again but what an imaginative, idiosyncratic kick-start.
"The ability to learn languages drops off very rapidly with age. It is known that it drops very rapidly after the age of between three and seven. Why, then, are we beginning to teach children a language at the age of 10, when we have ample evidence to show that people who have to learn a language after the age of 10 will find it more difficult because they've already learnt their own language? Language is not just language; it's a way of communication. So all our techniques for teaching language in school, I think, are just stupid. We teach a totally artificial way of learning language. We already know how to learn a language. You immerse a child as early as possible in that language's environment. There are ways to do it. For instance, I think if I knew what I know now, if I had children again, I would probably take a projector and project on to the wall, where the kids are when they are one, two, or three, a street scene from France or a playground scene from a school where kids are running round with dogs and kids are just talking. I mean Sesame Street is nice, but it is all artificial, it's a subversive way of teaching. They get these nice animals to captivate the children and I don't think that's the right way. The way to learn is as close as possible to the real thing.
"Basically we've been pratting around with education for a hundred years and we're still pratting around with it because we realise we still do not know how to do it. Might I hypothesise that other key abilities are also lost early on just like our ability to learn a language. Well, what might these be? They might be analytical ability, deep aspects of abstract thought even. That doesn't mean we should now go and take all our toddlers and immerse them in chemistry, but to recognise that for some of them something quite crucial didn't happen early on, which will make it much more difficult for them to really appreciate these things later on."
To circumvent prattish-ness the most important thing is just to get on with it, in Sir Harry's view, to do it. The "real thing" is not just a distant projection of foreign lands but the nitty-gritty almost artisan imagination of doing and making. "I was an only child, and I had a room to myself and I had Meccano and I had this world in which I did things. Toys are one thing but toys are only a stepping-stone to reality. Meccano is somewhere between a toy and a real piece of engineering equipment. My father used Meccano to set up gigs and make things in the factory, the point being that you could use it for pilot structures, whereas Lego really is basically a toy. The fundamental concept in Lego is a brick, whereas Meccano is much greater than that, it's actually nuts and bolts, real ways of building mechanical things, the way that you've got to use things to build things. Lego is great for getting kids started at doing things, but then they need to graduate to something like Meccano. Technical Lego is something else I am talking about basic Lego.The sad thing is that Meccano has all but disappeared. So kids no longer get the chance to develop the skills of nuts and bolts and the way things are actually built. It's about what feeling for materials you get. What feeling for structures triangulation of joints, what fundamental geometric structures are important for stability. Really fundamental things like that. Nobody learns things without actually doing things."
Feeling and doing, putting things together, are the key to Sir Harry's philosophy, so much so that he believes it is the will to do and the facility to fit the pieces together that have made him a successful scientist.
"Perhaps the only ability I have is a determination to do things as well as possible. I'm not a great scientist, in comparison to some people who are just fantastic theoretically. But I understand these things, I have certain abilities and I put things together in a way that is sometimes better than other people. I do something. I lock off everything else. I just do it single-mindedly".
The logic of the artisan scientist, the Meccano man at work, can make imaginative connections between wood and plastic, as well as between molecules and between creative models. It can make connections between polymers and antiques.
"Simple things like wood. I made things out of wood when I was a kid. Now wood is a very interesting material it has great strengths and great weaknesses. If you do woodwork at school, you learn to exploit the properties of wood, such as it splits along the grain. But now we've got things like pre-stressed concrete and plastics. These are fantastic materials, but the genius involved in producing those plastics was at the chemical level. If you look at wood you can see the grain, you can see some of the properties it has directly. But if you look at plastics the case of a computer, for example they have tensile properties which were just unheard of 20 or 30 years ago, but the genius is at the molecular level: you can't see it. There is a disconnection between public perception and what brilliant polymer scientists have done to make incredible materials that make our lives better, for example a simple washing-up bottle or a trainer. You look at antique furniture and say 'wow, these guys were good at woodwork'. Very few people would look at the case of a mobile phone and say 'wow, the guy who worked out how to make the molecule in this plastic casing do this be light and flexible and not burn they were pretty good'."
Has wood or plastic ever sounded so interesting, so beautiful to you? No? Thought not.
This marriage of imagination and technology can be a risky business. As a baby, Sir Harry's father gave him a pocket-watch instead of a dummy, and he would fall asleep with the watch pressed up against his ear. Cute, prophetic image that it is, this early introduction to mechanics had its price. The hypothesis is that the tinnitus he now suffers from may relate back to this. But the scientific imagination still prevails. Part of the tinnitus is a ticking sound, and this intrigues the scientist in Sir Harry. It was that curiosity that also made the watch an open-factory of discovery for him as a child. "It was fascinating. You could see it. You could see how a clock works. If you open up anything now, you have no idea how anything works. I think that this leads people to disconnect from the way our world works."
But it is a deeper failure of human imagination that really concerns, the refusal to let go of religion, for example. "I would never subject children to religious indoctrination. But religion is so deeply bound up with culture there is a problem. My closing line on Desert Island Discs, which I think was cut, was connected with Imagine. I particularly wanted the words. As Lennon sang 'It isn't hard to do', my closing shot was that my great disappointment is that it is very, very hard. Being a 60s child, all those things he said, particularly 'imagine no religion, imagine no heaven'. One of my greatest disappointments and discoveries is that it is so difficult. People need something other than what they are. John Maynard Smith told me that it is in our genes, and if he is right then it is a serious problem."
A slow ignition of subdued anger begins to filter through:
"I'm an atheist. I am absolutely antagonistic toward religious indoctrination. I believe it is becoming more dangerous. I despair of the fundamentalists who are destroying Jerusalem. I have friends who were brought up in Kibbutz and are just looking in amazement at the way Sharon and other Israelis are blind to the problems the Palestinians have. And the way that old Hamas guys are taking young boys and teaching them to blow themselves up in the name of Allah [this interview was recorded on 14 August 2001]. Then there are fundamentalist Christians in the USA who are exploiting modern communication technology for their own political ends and making a lot of money."
At this point in the journey, with the sun pounding into the car, the 60s child begins to find that "doing" voice.
"I think what the humanists should do is to recognise that for the first time they may be the majority in the world. It seems that they should really put all their efforts into an internet communication project that would pull together all those who have humanitarian instincts. If done well it might be possible to convert people who are in despair at the way certain members of their own religious faiths are taking their movements. The humanists don't have that at all. They don't have a blind indoctrinated approach. They've had to think about their place in the world. Humanism is an international thing, a set of untied beliefs. Where we have the advantage is that we are international, and nobody else actually is".
There are, as Sir Harry himself says, "no half-hearted measures". If humanists are going to embark on the internet project, we "should do it and I mean really do it. The internet enables a huge synergy of divisions and doubts. You can go to someone in Pakistan who's really pissed off [quietly flaring] about the fact that his daughter can't learn quantum mechanics. In Islamic countries it really is blasphemy to think about these things. If you think about these things then you are going to hell. People outside of Islam don't realise that the Qur'an is read as people read the Bible in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and that it is being implemented in that way. One billion people read that book as we read the bible 500 years ago. The amount of Mills and Boon out there come and go. But the Qur'an, Bible and Torah become rather monotonous after a while because they only have one thing to say: God is great and God knows all. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for being creative and even people who are religious read other things. Now there are some bad books: Hitler wrote Mein Kampf . But I'm against censorship. The internet is a new technology, a very powerful one. My gut reaction is if you got everyone in Britain to look carefully at what humanism actually means, we would win supporters even if you only get 5-10%; but if it's 5-10% of every country in the world, that is where the minority suddenly becomes the majority. To be humanitarian is our greatest achievement. It's not called 'Goditarian' as it was not created by God. It was created by human beings. And it's important, because the world is now lurching towards these factions of lunatic fundamentalists. But I think there is one great hope. The internet is a revolution in technology and in the case of humanism I think it has the possibility of downloading tremendous enabling power to individuals who are prepared to work their balls off to get their ideas and concepts up there."
By this time we had arrived at the pub where Gill Watson, Sir Harry's colleague and director of the Vega Science Trust (see article p.25), had broken down. Even in this quiet Sussex pub with its gloriously droopy willow tree, Sir Harry was a "doing" humanist, in that quiet, understated way. What do I mean? Well, just that general connectedness with people. There was no kiss-my-Nobel-laureateship snapping of fingers here. There was thanking of staff for looking after Gill and carrying the glasses back to the bar politeness. It was old-fashioned, let's-be-decent-to-each-other manners. I liked that. And I liked the flares of anger as well.
I hope Sir Harry would still say, after that streaming summer day which gave way to the direst of Autumn's...
"I'm still optimistic. A bit."