Richard Smalley

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Richard Errett Smalley
Richard Smalley.jpg
Born (1943-06-06)June 6, 1943
Akron, Ohio
Died October 28, 2005(2005-10-28) (aged 62)
Houston, Texas
Institutions Rice University
Alma mater University of Michigan Princeton University
Known for buckminsterfullerene
Notable awards Irving Langmuir Award (1991)
E. O. Lawrence Award (1991)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1996)

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, also known as 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.

Early life

Smalley, the youngest of 4 siblings, was born in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.

Smalley attended Hope College before transferring to the University of Michigan where he received his Bachelor of Science in 1965.[1] Between his studies, he worked in industry, where he developed his unique managerial style. He received his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from Princeton University in 1973 with Prof. E. R. Bernstein. He completed postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, with Lennard Wharton and Donald Levy, where he was a pioneer in the development of supersonic beam laser spectroscopy.

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 Coronae Borealis. The result of this collaboration was the discovery of C60 and the fullerenes as the third allotropic form of carbon.[2]

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, Yuan Liu, and Sean C. O'Brien participated in the work. Smalley mentioned Heath and O'Brien in his Nobel Lecture. Heath went on to become a professor at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and O'Brien joined Texas Instruments and is now at MEMtronics. Yuan Liu is a Senior Staff Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.[3]

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 their iron-catalyzed synthesis.

As a consequence of these researches, Smalley was able to persuade the administration of Rice University under then-president Malcolm Gillis to create the Rice Center for Nanoscience and Technology (CNST), focusing on any aspect of molecular nanotechnology.

Smalley's latest research was focused on carbon nanotubes, specifically focusing on the chemical synthesis side of nanotube research. He is well known for his group's invention of the high-pressure carbon monoxide (HiPco) method of producing large batches of high-quality nanotubes. Smalley spun off his work into a company, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. and associated nanotechnologies.

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.[4]

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".[5] His list in order of priority is:

  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism & war
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population

Compare to Ten Threats formulated by the U.N.'s High Level Threat Panel in 2004.

Smalley died of leukemia on October 28, 2005, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, at the age of 62. Upon his death, the US Senate passed a resolution to honor Smalley, crediting him as the “Father of Nanotechnology.”


Smalley believed in Old Earth creationism, which accepts that the Earth is billions of years old:

"Recently I have gone back to church regularly with a new focus to understand as best I can what it is that makes Christianity so vital and powerful in the lives of billions of people today, even though almost 2000 years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ. Although I suspect I will never fully understand, I now think the answer is very simple: it’s true. God did create the universe about 13.7 billion years ago, and of necessity has involved Himself with His creation ever since. The purpose of this universe is something that only God knows for sure, but it is increasingly clear to modern science that the universe was exquisitely fine-tuned to enable human life. We are somehow critically involved in His purpose. Our job is to sense that purpose as best we can, love one another, and help Him get that job done.”[6]

Following his death, Reasons To Believe, the publishers of the Old Earth creationism book "Who Was Adam", issued a news release that said: "Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading ‘Origins of Life’, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, ‘Who Was Adam?’, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.”[7] At the Tuskegee University's 79th Annual Scholarship Convocation/Parents' Recognition Program he made the following statement regarding the subject of evolution while urging his audience to take seriously their role as the higher species on this planet.[8] “The burden of proof is on those who don't believe that 'Genesis' was right, and there was a creation, and that Creator is still involved. We are the only species that can destroy the Earth or take care of it and nurture all that live on this very special planet. I'm urging you to look on these things. For whatever reason, this planet was built specifically for us. Working on this planet is an absolute moral code. ... Let's go out and do what we were put on Earth to do." Old Earth creationist and astronomer Hugh Ross spoke at Smalley's funeral, November 2, 2005.[9]




Awards and prizes


  1. Hafner, Jason H. (May 2006). "Obituary: Richard Errett Smalley". Physics Today. 59 (5): 71–72. doi:10.1063/1.2216973.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Edwards, Steven A. (2006). The Nanotech Pioneers: Where Are They Taking Us?. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. pp. 64–66.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Richard E. Smalley". Encyclopedia Britannica.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Nanotechnology: Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against 'molecular assemblers' 2003-12-01
  5. "Top Ten Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years", Professor R. E. Smalley, Energy & NanoTechnology Conference, Rice University, May 3, 2003.
  6. "Hope College".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Creation Scientists in Three-Way Debate with Intelligent Design, Evolution". Christian Post.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Scholarship Convocation Speaker Challenges Scholars to Serve the Greater Good 2004-10-03
  9. Funeral Service for Professor Richard Smalley - Speakers: James Tour, Hugh Ross and Ben Young, 2005-11-02, mp3 audio
  10. "The Thresher Online: The new Rice royals: Transco Smalley (November 1, 1996)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Rice University - Rice Quantum Institute".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

General references

  • Adams, W Wade; Baughman, Ray H (2005). "Retrospective: Richard E. Smalley (1943-2005)". Science. 310 (5756) (published Dec 23, 2005). p. 1916. doi:10.1126/science.1122120. PMID 16373566<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links