Nobel wins buck Britain

October 11, 1996

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry came home this week with Sir Harold Kroto of Sussex University winning the award for the discovery of a remarkable form of carbon whose structure matches the pattern of a football. He shares the prize with two Americans, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, both based at Rice University, Houston. Their prize was the second British Nobel of the week, after Jim Mirrlees of Cambridge won the economics prize.

Sir Harold and his co-workers discovered carbon atoms bound together in the form of a ball in an 11-day experiment in 1985. Examination of the structure suggested that it was highly symmetrical. Further work indicated that it was a "truncated icosahedron cage" - a polyhedron with 20 hexagonal surfaces and 12 pentagonal faces fitted together like those of a spherical football. The geodesic dome designed by the American architect R. Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition has the same shape so the researchers named their discovery buckminsterfullerene after him.

New molecules based on the "buckyball" enclosing a metal atom and "buckytubes," cylinders of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons, have been made. At the time of the discovery Sir Harold was heavily involved in microwave spectroscopy and had a particular interest in carbon-rich giant stars. Buckyballs have since turned out to be abundant in interstellar space.

Professor Mirrlees is the first United Kingdom economics winner since Sir Richard Stone, also of Cambridge, in 1984. He shares the prize with William Vickrey of Columbia University, New York.

Their work typically involves advanced mathematical techniques. But the situations it analyses, where people in business relationships face uncertainty and have different degrees of information, are very common, for example, banks and borrowers, shareholders and the managers who run their firms, insurance companies and policy-holders, and governments and taxpayers.

The prize-winning work sheds light on how practical problems of incentives and control can be handled in such situations. Professor Mirrlees is well-known for his work on the theory of optimal income taxes.

The critical problem he solved was how to design a tax system that balances efficiency and equity, taking account of the fact that tax rates have incentive effects on people's work effort but their productivity and preferences are not known to the government.

The physics prize was awarded to David Lee and Robert Richardson of Cornell University and Douglas Osheroff of Stanford for work on the superfluid behaviour of helium 3, while the medicine prize went to Peter Doherty of the University of Tennessee and Swiss biologist Rolf Zinkernagel for work on how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells.

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