Science journalism for the fan...


I have been a fan of science journalism all my adult years. At one point in graduate school, when research was beyond frustrating, I wrote a letter to the dean of science journalism, David Perlman, asking how to get into the business. I can’t remember what he said, but he did answer. He may have recommended I talk to the UC Santa Cruz science writing program, which I think was just beginning then. I did that and got a rather cool reception to my eagerness. I was told that my background (graduate school researcher) was not a benefit, and was maybe a handicap. The program is good, and has produced  the kind of top quality science journalism that graces the venerable Science News. Not so much discouraged job seeker as dilettante, I left off that line of inquiry, but continued to read my favorite writers. Then my favorite, and in my mind a pathbreaker then, was Gina Bari Kolata of Science, now just known as Gina Kolata of the New York Times. Over time my tastes have changed. In the mid 00’s I met Tom Siegfried, whose experience includes newspapers, magazines and books, print and digital, and his insights have informed,  enriched and energized me.

Just a few years ago I read a book which inspired me. It was Patrick Coffey’s  Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Perhaps it was because my academic training was in chemistry, but I think that it was really that my training in chemistry made the subject accessible. I don’t mean that the book was full of hard science, but the figures were real people to me, people about whom I had opinions gained from immersion in the discipline and its history. Dr. Coffey (he himself is a physical chemist) had imbued the people and events of myth with reality. G. N. Lewis became a real person. Before reading Coffey, G. N. Lewis was the statued giant who overshadowed much of modern chemistry, a bronze shell the size of the lovers statue at St. Pancras Station in London, which evokes monumental hollowness. He was hollow for me even though I had worked under the supervision of his chemist son E. S. Lewis. It was whispered, erroneously as it turns out, that the younger Dr. Lewis did not like the older one and did not like people to speak of him, so I never asked him what his father was like. Coffey made him real, and made his rival Irving Langmuir real, and I believe I glimpsed the difficult Lewis who never won the Nobel Prize, and the charming Langmuir who did. I share his son’s belief that Lewis was not a suicide, although Coffey pointed out the real possibility. What he had done was to blow away the dust of years of grad school hero worship and mythology and replace it with something believable. He had to do a lot of background work – we had to know about Arrhenius, who had always been a hero of mine, we had to know the heartbreaking story of Fritz Haber, and about the other personalities who shaped thinking in my chosen field. I admired Coffey for this accomplishment, and I wanted to do it for other stories. In this enterprise I hope to shed light on science, scientists, and perhaps writing about science.

A couple of years ago, I researched and wrote a story on Texans who have won the Nobel Prize. The Nobel story was a subject suggested by an administrator at the college where I taught chemistry for 10 years. He thought that Texas Heritage Magazine, an infrequently published chronicle of things Texan in which he himself had published an interesting story on women in bullfighting, might have an interest in a science story.  As it happened, my story sat on the editor’s desk for about a year, and then it needed updating. Yet another Texas based scientist won the Nobel and I was concerned the story would be published with incomplete information.  I was told that I should go right ahead revising, that my original submission had not been read yet. It was then that I was able to gauge the intensity of interest in my story.

Nobel Prize Texans had seemed a great topic to me, a native myself. One of the subjects of my article was a man who had been my teacher in college, Robert Curl of Rice University. Dr. Curl, along with Rick Smalley and Harry Kroto won the prize in 1996 for their research into the chemistry of buckminsterfullerene. I eagerly read everything I could about the subject, and Dr. Curl pointed out to me early on that there had been two books on the subject [The Most Beautiful Molecule: The Discovery of the Buckyball by Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene by Jim Baggott]

An intriguing story it is, and a huge one in chemistry, and yet I remember that in both well-researched books, there were accounts of a controversy which arose during the epidemic spread of bucky-fever through the chemistry community. The vectors of that infection, particularly Kroto and Smalley, proposed a chemical mechanism for the formation of soot, a subject that had been studied since Michael Faraday’s time. The not insubstantial community of scholars in the field of soot did not accept the breezy explanation and somehow the mechanism of scientific argument, that most important step in the generation of knowledge, broke.  That became the story which I propose to tell.

Actually, Baggott and Aldersey-Williams have done a fair job of describing the essential facts of the story, although Larry Ebert, one of the protagonists, has written a scathing denunciation [Carbon volume 33 no. 7 (1995) , pp. 1007-1010] of both books. The story though, is not just the facts in the books, and reading the accounts left me wanting to know how such a situation could have occurred.

A Beautiful Theory is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Getting down and sooty

In 1985, Curl, Kroto, Smalley and their students published a Nature article [Nature (London) volume 318 (1985), pp. 162-3] concerning their observations of what happens when a powerful argon laser blasts graphite in a vacuum; the material blasted off contains a surprising amount of something which has the formula C60. The scientists proposed that this material had an assembly of connected carbon atoms that resembled a soccer ball, or football. They named the molecule buckminsterfullerene. Something about this work touched a nerve in the body of chemistry. The reflex reaction was rapid and intense. Published scientific research and invention activity outstripped all other subjects [Baggot, p. 195]!  Over the next ten years the article was one of the most cited papers which had ever appeared.

Perhaps emboldened by the world-wide acclaim, the authors theorized [Journal of Physical Chemistry volume 90 (1986), pp. 526-528]. The C60, they said, being spherical itself, must be the precursor of soot particles, themselves spherical, albeit containing many things other than carbon, albeit formed in flames with air as an oxidant, albeit many thousands of times larger than a molecule.

The soot chemists, a subcommunity, but not insignificant in size or history, answered this provocative notion. They answered in the way that scientists do – they examined the proposal and experimented to find out how it fit the facts – and then published their findings. Notable among the responses was that of Michael Frenklach of Penn State, and Larry Ebert, an Exxon scientist, who reported early in 1988 [Frenklach, M. and L. B. Ebert, “Comments on the proposed role of spheroidal carbon clusters in soot formation,” Journal of Physical Chemistry  volume 92 (1988), pp. 561-563] that a computer simulation showed that, first of all, if they formed in flames, buckyballs would form too slowly to lead to soot, and further,  buckyballs could not survive the early conditions of a flame and would be converted into PAHs, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, familiar toxic components of cigarette smoke and chief candidate as the parent of soot particles.
Smalley and Kroto in particular, unphased by the soot experts’ reaction, and with an international audience, continued to expound the importance of buckyballs in the formation of soot frequently hinting that it was too beautiful an idea not to be true. They did not answer the specific points of Frenklach and Ebert and the community – they rather cherry-picked the known features of soot (Soot was found to contain C60, see below) for those which supported their thesis.
At the end of 1988, chemistry’s Time and Newsweek rolled into one, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), published an article [C&EN, August 29, 1988, pp. 33-35] summing up the C60 story. In it, Rudy Baum, then its west coast reporter wrote: “At this point, no process exists to halt the growth of the curling sheet [Smalley, Kroto and Curl’s hypothesis to explain the formation of the spherical molecule], which likely causes the formation of a soot particle with a spiral structure [my emphasis]. Frenklach and Ebert and other combustion scientists noted the presumptiveness of this article and complained to Baum, who abjectly apologized for one-sidedness. He said he hoped to correct matters in a future article [Baum, letter to Frenklach, October 21, 1988].
Although the matter was settled as far as the soot community was concerned – there was no controversy – Smalley and Kroto continued to ignore the serious contradictory results of Frenklach and insisted that the ico-spiral mechanism, the curling molecule explanation for buckyball formation in a vacuum, accounted for the spherical shape of primary soot particles, a claim which was beginning to take hold in the community beyond the experts. In the summer of 1989, Kroto and Ebert presented consecutive papers at a forum at Penn State, where Frenklach was a professor and host. Still unbending, Kroto insisted that the icospiral mechanism was more successful at explaining the chemical genesis of soot than the PAH mechanism, and giving no ground, Ebert disputed every point, reiterating that the well-established presence of C60 in sooting flames [Gerhart, Loeffler and Homann, Chemical Physics Letters , volume 137 (1987), pp. 306-310] was irrelevant.
Finally, in February of 1990, Baum published his promised follow-up article [C&EN, February 5, 1990, pp. 30-32]. Frenklach and Ebert were shocked to see that not only had Baum reported that Smalley regarded them as closed-minded specialists in a “backwater” of modern chemistry, but that Frenklach and Ebert had accused Smalley and Kroto of “pathological science,” a buzz-term for the Pons and Fleischer Cold Fusion debacle. The former was just mild name calling, and Smalley and Kroto probably did do it, but the latter comment, the “pathological science” comment, was tantamount to a curse, or a declaration of war. Frenklach and Ebert denied that they had ever said such a thing. There was, despite a long series of complaints to the editor, no retraction. In the literature, Frenklach and Ebert remain branded as rude critics of the famous buckyball scientists who eventually won the Nobel in 1996.

The Back Stories

How did this chain of events come to be? Why would Rudy Baum so uncritically report what he did in 1988? What did Frenklach and Ebert do to deserve branding as whiners? What motivated Kroto and Smalley? Did any of the protagonists have other goals than the progress of knowledge? I will be addressing these questions and others in these pages. I hope you will join me as I continue the story.