Right to the Source: Exploring Science and History with the Library of Congress

By Apfeldorf, Michael | The Science Teacher, January 2016 | Go to article overview

Right to the Source: Exploring Science and History with the Library of Congress


Apfeldorf, Michael, The Science Teacher


From Dome Homes to Fullerenes

In the mid-1940s, famed inventor R. Buckminster Fuller first experimented with the idea of using geodesic domes to create widespread affordable housing. These innovative domes formed by triangles arrayed in pentagons and hexagons created a self-bracing framework with enormous structural strength, enclosing a maximum volume of space with minimal materials.

Hoping to address the post--World War II housing shortage, Fuller envisioned dome kits airlifted throughout the country for quick and easy assembly onsite. Fuller himself lived in his own dome home in Carbondale, Illinois, from 1960 to 1971.

Unfortunately, practical considerations interfered with Fuller's vision. While the dome home offered superior efficiency and strength, the world was already set up for rectangular construction. This made it hard for dome builders to meet building codes, use off-the-shelf materials, and divide up dome interiors into traditionally shaped rooms.

But, while dome housing never fully caught on, Fuller's big idea did inspire others. In the 1980s, scientists working at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom discovered a mysterious 60-carbon molecule so stable that it didn't react with other molecules. Seeking to identify its structure, one of the scientists remembered seeing a giant Fuller dome from his visit to the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal. Encouraged, they constructed a paper "sphere" out of pentagons and hexagons--with exactly 60 vertices. For their seminal discovery in the field of nanoscience of the "Buckminsterfullerene" molecule (C60) they were awarded the 1996 Nobel prize in chemistry. …

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