By Mike Bruton
Who would have thought that the design of a soccer ball would mimic that of an ancient carbon molecule in deep space!
Origin of the soccer ball
In the mid 1800s, Charles Goodyear, of motor car tyre fame, made the first vulcanised rubber soccer balls. In 1872, the rules of soccer stated, not surprisingly, that the ball must be round, with a circumference of about 70 cm.
In the early 20th century, soccer balls were made from 18 oblong leather panels stitched together, but they were not perfectly round. In the 1950s, something remarkable happened – a company called Select in Denmark made a perfectly round ball out of 12 pentagons (five-sided shapes) and 20 hexagons (six-sided shapes). This 32-panel sphere is called a ‘spherical polyhedron’ in mathspeak, and it is round because the shapes bulge equally due to the pressure of the air inside.
With white hexagons and black pentagons, they became the most popular soccer balls on the planet during the roaring 60s and beyond. The official ball of the 1970 FIFA World Cup was a 32-panel ‘Telstar’.
Origin of buckyball
Up until the 1980s, we only knew about two forms of pure carbon: diamond and graphite (the ‘lead’ in our pencils). In 1985, a British chemist, Harry Kroto, was puzzling over strange chains of carbon atoms that he had detected billions of kilometers away in space using a radiotelescope.
He collaborated with two astronomers in the USA – Richard Smalley and Robert Curl – to re-create the conditions in the laboratory under which these strange carbon molecules may have been formed. When they analysed their results, they found many previously unknown carbon molecules, but the most common of them was a perfectly round one with 60 carbon atoms. And, guess what? It was made up of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons, exactly the same design as the soccer ball!
Kroto and company then discovered that the combination of hexagons and pentagons in their round carbon molecule exactly matched the arrangement of shapes in a geodesic dome designed by the American architect and engineer, Buckminster Fuller, for the 1967 Montréal World Fair. They decided to name their new molecule buckminsterfullerene, nowadays shortened to buckyball.
Although Kroto, Smalley and Curl won the 1996 Nobel Prize for the discovery of fullerines, they missed out on a chance to make chemistry more friendly – they could have named their little carbon ball ‘soccerballfullerine’! What a missed opportunity.