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Posted: June 29, 2008
Co-discoverer of buckyballs retiring
(Nanowerk News) Robert Curl never sought the limelight that accompanied the Nobel Prize in Chemistry he won a dozen years ago.
In his quiet way, Curl simply went on teaching, thinking, experimenting and riding his bicycle to Rice University.
Now, after 50 years at Rice, Curl plans to retire Tuesday. With a hint of a smile, Curl, 74, says he doesn't want to turn into "one of these people who hangs on so long that they have become a blithering idiot."
Curl shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Rice's Rick Smalley and a British scientist, Harold Kroto. They discovered a unique form of carbon in which 60 atoms are clustered neatly into a tiny, soccer-shaped ball. They christened their finding a buckyball — or fullerene — after Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs the molecules resemble.
The discovery heralded the dawn of nanotechnology, the science of building very small materials with unique properties.
After winning the award, Smalley catapulted to fame, becoming an evangelizer for nanotechnology and bringing funding to Houston for further research. He died in 2005 of leukemia at age 62. Kroto used his fame to further his interest in creating science education programming.
Curl followed a quieter path.
"After winning a Nobel, you can either become a scientific pontificator, or you can have some idea for a new science project and you can use your newfound notoriety to get the resources to do it," Curl said. "Or you can say, 'Well, I enjoy what I was doing, and I want to keep doing that.' "
Throughout his life, Curl often has gone wherever his curiosity has led him.
Like many leading scientists of his age, Curl's passion for research dates to a childhood Christmas, when his parents bought him a chemistry set. Soon, the 9-year-old was mixing chemicals, making gunpowder and blowing things up.
In one memorable event, some nitric acid boiled over onto his mother's porcelain stove, eating away the fine finish. His mother never forgave him, he said, but Curl was hooked on chemistry.
"It was not scientific at all," he said, "but it was sure fun."
His parents were supportive of his interest. His father, Floyd, was a Methodist minister who moved every year or two, as was the church's custom at the time. The family wound up in San Antonio for Curl's high school years after his father earned a senior position in the Southwest Texas Conference.
As acting president of the first Board of Trustees for the Methodist Hospital there in 1955, Floyd Curl helped formulate the plan to open the new facility, which became the nucleus of San Antonio's medical center.
A lack of direction
The family lived on a tight budget, so Rice's no-tuition policy — a dictate of its original endowment from William Marsh Rice — proved irresistible to the young Curl. Rice University of 1950 was a vastly different place, with an administration consisting solely of a president, dean, registrar and bursar.
"I think that made it a little bit easier for the school to afford to have no tuition," Curl said.
Rice's governing board changed the policy of charging no tuition in 1965.
The young scientist liked chemistry, but he lacked direction after earning his bachelor's degree in 1954.
Curl considered graduate programs at Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley. He applied to the latter first because its application lacked a question asked by the others, "What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now?" He didn't know, and before Curl got around to applying to Harvard, Berkeley had accepted him in its chemistry program.
Curl said he felt similarly listless after earning a doctorate at Berkeley and taking a postdoctoral position at Harvard.
"I was getting panicky, I must admit," he said. "When I look back, I'm kind of amazed at the way I just kind of wandered through life. This business about not being able to fill in a 20-year plan actually should have told me something."
Then Rice called him back to Texas.
A lucky turn
One of the school's chemistry professors, George Bird, was leaving for a job at Polaroid. Would Curl be interested? "You bet," he replied.
"It was really a beautiful thing to fall into," he said. "I was doing microwave spectroscopy, and I sort of liked it, but I can't claim to have had any brilliant ideas about what to work on. The guy that was leaving was working on problems that I found really interesting, and he had a working apparatus. He had a brilliant graduate student. It just solved all my problems."
The graduate student was James Kinsey, who eventually would become Curl's boss as dean of Rice's School of Natural Sciences. Like most people asked about Curl, Kinsey credits him with two qualities in particular.
"He's scary smart," Kinsey said. "But he is also an extraordinarily decent human being. A sweet person. What you see is what you get."
Rice's current president, David Leebron, echoes the sentiment: "On top of all the achievement, Bob is one of the kindest and most generous people I know."
Those qualities made Curl a good mentor. He gave brilliant and not-as-brilliant graduate students the same attention and respect, colleagues said.
Curl also became ingrained in the Rice culture. He has sat on nearly every imaginable committee, including chairing one that ended the abhorred practice of Saturday classes. He was a college master, meaning he lived on campus with his wife, Jonel, and was essentially a surrogate parent for a few hundred students.
All the while, he diligently worked at elucidating some of nature's most fundamental molecules.
"He has, more than anybody I know, followed his curiosity," Kinsey said.
Curiosity led Curl to a collaboration with Smalley, whom he describes as "by far the most talented constructor of scientific instrumentation I have ever known."
Smalley's machines excelled at studying clusters of tiny molecules, and together the pair were investigating semiconductors when Kroto approached them. He was interested in the properties of molecules found in the barren reaches of interstellar space.
Kroto wanted to investigate the nature of long chains of carbon atoms that astronomers had observed between stars. Were the carbon chains, he wondered, blown into space from stars similar to the sun when, as part of their life-cycle, they had expanded and then violently collapsed before dying?
Curl and Smalley believed they could approximate the conditions of dying stars, which are rich in carbon, by using lasers to blast a chunk of graphite. At the time, graphite and diamonds were the two known forms of carbon. The scientists hoped to create the long carbon chains seen in interstellar space.
Instead, when they pored over the collected data, they found a blip that turned out to be a spectacular, third form of carbon.
"Our buckyball discovery was a complete piece of serendipity and totally unexpected," Curl said.
"It's kind of embarrassing. Reporters asked us, 'Tell us how you made this great discovery.' Well, it was a stroke of luck. The only credit you can claim is not ignoring your stroke of luck."