It is with a heavy heart that I write this comment. On Monday, we were shocked to hear of the death of one of the modern greats, Harry Kroto - chemist, science communicator, designer, visionary and, of course, Nobel laureate, and knight of the realm. It was his pioneering work that first gave us buckyballs (the fullerenes), which spawned buckytubes (carbon nanotubes) and in a sense the unraveled nanotubes we know as graphene.

Back in the 1990s, I crossed paths a couple of times with Kroto. I was senior assistant editor on a well-known chemistry journal. He and his colleagues had the spectra proving the existence of the all-carbon, soccerball-shaped molecule, later formally named [60]fullerene . At the time, Kroto's wonderful design-oriented brain had named the compound after his hero Richard Buckminster Fuller creator of those fabulous geodesic domes showcased in 1967 in the Montreal Biosphère. Kroto et al had got wind that a German team had also made buckminsterfullerene in relatively large quantities and were to publish their mass spectrometry on the molecule in Nature.

The race to publication was on.

Remember, this was the era before on-screen editing, we had email in the office, thanks to JANET, but most correspondence and shuffling of papers was done by snail mail and there was still much shuffling by proxy with the fax machine. The journal had "times to publication" targets that we were always trying to push down, but we couldn't breach protocols nor ethics to accelerate papers through the process in preference to others. Nevertheless, we worked flat out on that issue, recognizing at the time the potential importance of the Kroto work that would ultimately change his career path. It would, of course, also earn him the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with his co-discoverers the late Rick Smalley (died 2005) and Robert Curl (currently emeritus professor at Rice University) and that knighthood. I learned through one interview I did with him that he really did not enjoy the "Sir" epithet!

If I remember rightly, the issue was actually published in record time, having done the standard rounds of refereeing, copyediting on a paper manuscript in the office with a red pen, typesetting, proofreading (again on paper with pens) and a second proof check on the "pages" before being printed and bound and dispatched to subscribers and libraries across the globe with the 50 free "reprints" being sent to the first authors too. Those were the days! I don't think many journals do any proofs these days let alone second page proofs, do they? Correct me if I'm wrong...

Despite it being a record for us, Nature with its weekly cycle, as opposed to our fortnightly, beat us by a few days. Thus, the early news stories and subsequent recorded history of buckminsterfullerene focused on the Kraetschmer work. It was the sterling efforts of Kroto, Smalley and Curl and their colleagues that had led to the discovery of what Kroto described as the molecule that fell to earth (in a nod to another hero of mine, this time a musical one, David Bowie, who also died this year).

I met Kroto a couple of times through various RSC functions and sat rapt in the front row of the lecture theatre one of the first times he gave that falling molecule lecture, quite some time before Nobel medal might have adorned his chest. Incidentally, the allusion was to the fact that the original discovery had arisen serendipitously in the quest to explain a feature of astronomical spectra that hinted at a C60 molecule, which turned out not to be [60]fullerene with that molecule turning up here on terra forma in nothing more cosmic than soot.

I think later the title was embellished to call it "The Celestial Sphere that Fell to Earth". I've still got my notes in the attic from all those 1990s lectures and conferences I attended, so I could perhaps double check...some time. In a neighboring box will also be at least one copy of that record-breaking journal issue on which I worked carrying the paper by Kroto et al...and, admittedly, the issue of Nature featuring the work by Wolfgang Kraestchmer's team.

With Kroto's death, it all seems like a lifetime ago now. RIP Harry.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".