Section IX


  1. Roles of Serendipity, Observation, and Insight

    Important discoveries in science are often made by accident. This was certainly the case in the discovery of C. Recall that Smalley and Kroto set out to simulate the atmospheric conditions in carbon-rich red giant stars in order to address the question of whether linear cyanopolyynes could form under these conditions. They were, in fact, able to answer their original question in the affirmative. But more significantly, they refused to ignore the large unexpected peaks at m/e 720 and 840 in their mass spectra. Smalley and Kroto had the insight to recognize the significance of these peaks, and that insight is what opened the field of fullerene science.

    It is interesting that in the year prior to Kroto and Smalley's seminal paper in Nature, scientists at Exxon (Rohlfing, 1984) had observed and published the time-of-flight mass spectrum of carbon clusters generated by laser vaporization of graphite. However, the Exxon group failed to appreciate the significance of the enhanced peaks due to C and C and failed to recognize that all of the high mass clusters were closed carbon cages.

    Serendipity also played a role in Krätschmer and Huffman's breakthrough discovery of how to synthesize macroscopic quantities of C. Krätschmer and Huffman were originally interested in generating graphite "soot" in the lab in order to compare its spectral properties with those of interstellar carbon dust. They observed four unexpected (albeit weak) bands in the infrared spectrum of their "soot". Again, their insight allowed them to recognize the significance of this observation, which in turn led to their development of a large-scale isolation procedure.

  2. Relationship between "Mission-Oriented" and "Curiosity-Driven" Research

    Scientists in universities and in industry are being asked to focus more and more of their effort on mission-oriented research, i.e., research that will have direct, rapid economic benefit or societal impact. While this swing toward applied research may seem prudent in times of economic retrenchment and belt-tightening, it neglects the fact that many of the most important discoveries in science are accidental. If research becomes too mission or goal oriented, scientists will lose the ability to pursue the unexpected results that can lead in totally new and even more exciting directions. It is important for all of us (and our elected representatives) to recognize that basic (or "curiosity-driven") research - like applied research - is crucial and deserves to be supported and encouraged.

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