A Giant of the Nano-World
Senator Hutchinson's Weekly Capitol Comment - December 9th, 2005
Under the nurturing gaze of his mother, he peered through the
eyepiece of a microscope and saw a whole universe: paramecia,
diatoms, and amoebas — the various single-celled organisms they had
collected together in a nearby pond. To most of us, the many
creatures he found in just a drop of water would be too small to
notice, too insignificant to make us pause and consider them
further. But, for Dr. Smalley, microscopic things held gigantic
possibilities. Those pond creatures were actually among the
biggest objects he studied. The universe in which he would later
blaze trails, was much, much smaller — 100,000 times smaller in
To explore that universe, Dr. Smalley, had to be, not only bold and creative, he also had to create his own tools. He studied at some of the best schools in the country, from his education in chemistry at the University of Michigan and Princeton, to his work at the University of Chicago and Rice, work that would earn him a Nobel prize in 1996. To see molecules, an ordinary microscope would not do. Since molecules are constantly moving, he pioneered new methods of slowing them down so that it was possible to learn more about them.
It was his amazing combination of expert chemist and basement inventor that made his success possible. He started out as a boy building gadgets with his father and ended up building the most advanced supersonic beam apparatus of its time for his own lab at Rice University, as well as for Exxon. As his vision of the nano-world improved, he discovered the fullerene, a soccer ball-shaped carbon molecule, commonly known as a buckyball. Further research led him to identify a tube-shaped carbon molecule, known as a nanotube.
I was extremely fortunate to work with Dr. Smalley when I began my effort to make Texas one of America’s top research states in the hard sciences. He was a very generous man. Rather than seeking to maximize the profits he might have made on his new discovery, he provided other researchers with access to high-quality nanotube so they could learn from his research and it would help mankind as quickly as possible.
Dr. Smalley was not only a scientist, he was a gallant leader of scientists, affirming his mother’s intuition in naming him after Richard the Lion-Hearted, one of the great kings of England. When I developed a consortium to use nanotechnology to improve our military equipment (SPRING), Dr. Smalley was happy to lead other scientists in the new endeavor. The group’s work has already produced new, lighter, yet stronger, body armor that will save many soldiers’ lives.
He was also eager to use his knowledge to save lives by curing diseases. Dr. Smalley played a key role in the formation of the Alliance for NanoHealth, a group that unites Texas’s top medical institutions in the mission to cure diseases like cancer with the new technologies his discovery made possible. Scientists are now developing buckyballs they can load with drugs or radioactive atoms to more precisely attack cancer and other diseases.
Finally, Dr. Smalley added his insight to my most ambitious plan to fuel the work of researchers in Texas: The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST). This group was designed to bring together Texas doctors, scientists, and engineers who are recognized as leaders through membership in the national academies. Their goal is to share their work in order to increase research collaboration.
Dr. Smalley’s true legacy to our state and the world is not yet fully realized because the brightest gems of his discovery have not yet been mined. In the decades to come, computers may be made with tiny, nanotubes circuits, making the smallest computers of today look gigantic; tiny robots may be placed in a patient’s bloodstream to clean out his arteries, making intrusive heart surgery unnecessary. By looking at the smallest of things, Dr. Smalley made one of the biggest discoveries in recent history.
He once wrote that when he was 18, he was “convinced that Kansas City, Missouri was the exact center of the known universe.” During his life, he changed the center of his universe by seeing the grandest possibilities in the world’s most minute details.
Last October, Dr. Smalley died after a long battle with cancer. Now, we mourn the loss of his brilliant mind and great heart. We cannot replace his remarkable vision of the world. But, at the same time, we know that his discovery will continue to revolutionize science.
I will continue to miss this giant of the nano-world, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that our state continues to build on — the life work of this dedicated, lion-hearted man