Born on June 6, 1943, in Akron, Ohio, Smalley’s childhood was one of middle America and middle class. As a youth he spent hours with his mother, Esther Virginia Rhoads, collecting single-celled organisms from a local pond and viewing them under a microscope.
After earning his chemistry doctorate from Princeton University, Smalley accepted a job as an assistant chemistry professor at Rice in 1976.
At Rice, Smalley’s research group set about building a series of beam-and-laser machines that could vaporize material, leaving individual atoms in the residue. By vaporizing different materials, and cooling the resulting atoms to very low temperatures, the researchers could study and manipulate how the atoms clumped together.
Jim Heath, now a professor at the California Institute of Technology, joined Smalley’s lab in 1984 as a graduate student. Heath recalled his first day on the job, when Smalley patiently explained the experiments he wanted completed, and demonstrated how to operate the equipment.
There was just one problem: at 3 a.m., when he had finally finished the day’s experiments, Heath realized Smalley had forgotten to tell him how to turn off the machine. With trepidation, Heath called the senior scientist at his home and woke him up.
“He was actually delighted that I was still there working that late,” Heath said. “That was the sort of environment he created. He pushed people reasonably hard, but he balanced that by being a very compelling, almost Moses-like teacher. He knew what he wanted. You’re unlikely to ever meet someone who had a more intense and focused mind than Rick.”
A year after Heath began working in the lab, Smalley, along with Robert Curl at Rice and Sir Harold Kroto of University of Sussex, discovered a new form of carbon. This fullerene, or buckyball, contained 60 carbon atoms arranged in a perfect sphere.
Few scientists had expected to discover a new arrangement of carbon atoms because the element already was so well-studied.
“It was an absolutely electrifying discovery,” said James Kinsey, then a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became dean of natural sciences at Rice. “Within a year or two, you couldn’t pick up a chemistry journal without one-third of the articles being about fullerenes.”
The new carbon material proved to be surprisingly strong and lightweight, and had almost magical electrical properties. The buckyball’s discovery helped fuel today’s explosion of nanotechnology research, in which scientists are racing to exploit the unique properties of myriad nanomaterials, with applications for everything from medicine to bulletproof vests.
Eric Berger relates a few more anecdotes about Smalley, including that he was elected Homecoming Queen at Rice in 1996 as tribute for his role in earning the Nobel. He was obviously quite a guy. Rest in peace, Richard Smalley.
(Shameless name-dropping aside: I never knew Dr. Smalley, but I am acquainted with his co-laureate Bob Curl, who is a longtime fixture in the local tournament bridge scene.)