Carbon is a remarkable little atom. When it’s arranged in sheets, it’s soft as pencil lead. Arrange it in crystals, and it’s hard as diamonds. On September 4, 1985, three scientists trying to figure out the structure of a carbon molecule known as C60 began playing around with toothpicks and jellybeans. One of them began sticking his jellybean atoms together in the shape of alternating pentagons and hexagons. Interestingly, his structure began to curve into a ball.
To the scientists, the sphere created by this arrangement of candy and sticks looked an awful lot like the geodesic dome built by visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller in 1967 for the world’s fair in Montreal. As it turned out, the jellybean model of C60 was correct, and the molecule discovered was named “buckminsterfullerene” after its inspiration.
This was not some esoteric finding. The advent of the fullerene, which can be round, ellipsoid or tube-shaped, led to the entire nanotech industry. Today fullerenes show up in everything from ultra-light, ultra-strong bicycle frames and tennis rackets to “nanopants” that are soft and breathable yet repeal water and stains. And they make great desk toys, too.
You can still visit Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montreal, too. Today it houses the Biosphere, a museum about the region’s ecology. There’s an exhibit about Fuller inside.
Thanks to the Tang Museum’s exhibit Molecules That Matter, which introduced my family to Buckyballs. Curator Ray Giguere noted that dog toys made very good models. And thanks to Google, which today has an animated doodle honoring the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the Buckyball.