Richard Smalley

Richard Smalley bigraphy, stories - American chemist

Richard Smalley : biography

June 6, 1943 – October 28, 2005

Richard Errett Smalley (June 6, 1943 – October 28, 2005) was the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, in Houston, Texas. In 1996, along with Robert Curl, also a professor of chemistry at Rice, and Harold Kroto, a professor at the University of Sussex, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of a new form of carbon, buckminsterfullerene ("buckyballs"), and was a leading advocate of nanotechnology and its many applications, including its use in creating strong but lightweight materials as well as its potential to fight cancer.

Fullerenes and nanotechnology

Smalley’s research in physical chemistry investigated formation of inorganic and semiconductor clusters using pulsed molecular beams and time-of-flight mass spectrometry. As a consequence of this expertise, Robert Curl introduced him to Harry Kroto in order to investigate a question about the constituents of astronomical dust. These are carbon-rich grains expelled by old stars such as R Corona Borealis. The result of this collaboration was the discovery of C60 and the fullerenes as the third allotropic form of carbon.

The research that earned Kroto, Smalley and Curl the Nobel Prize mostly comprised three articles. First was the discovery of C60 in the Nov. 14, 1985, issue of Nature "C60: Buckminsterfullerene". The second article detailed the discovery of the endohedral fullerenes in "Lanthanum Complexes of Spheroidal Carbon Shells" in the Journal of the American Chemical Society v. 107 p 7779 (1985). The third announced the discovery of the fullerenes in "Reactivity of Large Carbon Clusters: Spheroidal Carbon Shells and Their Possible Relevance to the Formation and Morphology of Soot" in the Journal of Physical Chemistry v. 90 p 525 (1986).

Although only three people can be cited for a Nobel Prize, graduate students James R. Heath and Sean C. O’Brien participated in the work. Smalley mentions them in his Nobel Lecture. Heath went on to become a professor at Caltech and O’Brien joined Texas Instruments and is now at MEMtronics.

Following nearly a decade’s worth of research into the formation of alternate fullerene compounds (e.g. C28, C70), as well as the synthesis of endohedral metallofullerenes (M@C60), reports of the identification of carbon nanotube structures led Smalley to begin investigating the iron-catalyzed synthesis of carbon nanotubes.

Dispute on molecular assemblers

He was an outspoken critic of the idea of molecular assemblers, as advocated by K. Eric Drexler and introduced scientific objections to them. His two main objections, which he had termed the “fat fingers problem" and the "sticky fingers problem”, argued against the feasibility of molecular assemblers being able to precisely select and place individual atoms. He also believed that Drexler’s speculations about apocalyptic dangers of molecular assemblers threaten the public support for development of nanotechnology. He debated Drexler in an exchange of letters which were published in Chemical & Engineering News as a point-counterpoint feature. 2003-12-01

Later life

In 1999 Smalley was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which later became chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

In his later years, Smalley was very outspoken about the need for cheap, clean energy, which he described as the number one problem facing humanity in the 21st century. He felt that improved science education was key, and went to great lengths to encourage young students to consider careers in science. His slogan for this effort was "Be a scientist, save the world."

Skeptical of religion in general for most of his life, Smalley became a Christian shortly before his death. (See the Wikiquote for his personal statement in May 2005.)

In some of his later presentations, he presented a list entitled "Top Ten Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years"."Top Ten Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years", Professor R. E. Smalley, Energy & NanoTechnology Conference, Rice University, May 3, 2003. His list in order of priority is: