Nanotech pioneer, Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley dead at 62
The death of Richard E. Smalley, known to adoring colleagues and students as Rick, marks the passing of a scientific giant whose gift of nanotechnology will profoundly change the world for the better.
Born in 1943 in Akron, Ohio and educated at Hope College, the University of Michigan, and Princeton, Dr Smalley spent his scientific career at Rice University, where he rose to become the Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry.
Dr Smalley and his colleague Robert Curl, PhD discovered a soccer-shaped molecule of 60 carbon atoms and modestly named it buckminsterfullerene after the late Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. “C60” and related carbon nanotubes (discovered by Sumio Iijima ) are the strongest substances in the universe, with the potential to make things stronger, smaller, lighter, faster, longer-lived, and less expensive.
Equally exciting was the discovery that fullerenes and many other substances exhibit surprising properties when made very small (10-100nm, which is 10-100 billionths of a meter, the size of viruses). These properties, including electrical conductivity, thermal insulation, friction, and fluorescence, can be tuned so as to make possible new signaling systems and switches. This opened a whole new world, now called nanotechnology, and earned Smalley, Curl, and Britain’s Harold Kroto the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996.
These new materials, and new properties of known materials reduced to the nanoscale, have already made it possible to build affordable small devices with enormous memory, the iPod being an example. Over the next decade, as manufacturers learn to produce uniform nanoparticles, and techniques are developed for molecule-by-molecule construction, and for imaging, these materials should make it possible to connect everything and everyone all the time (or not, as you choose) through an even faster and more reliable internet; to make solar (and wind and wave) energy economical and clean; to make inexpensive sensors that monitor our environment against biological, chemical, nuclear, or explosive threats; to make medical devices to detect diseases when they are curable; drugs that go only where they should.
Many scientists believe the discovery of fullerenes will prove more important than that of the semiconductor, atomic fission, or DNA, because it will impact so many fields. Thus, at a time when American competitiveness in science and engineering is challenged, it is important to ask what lessons can be learned from his life.
In his Nobel autobiography Dr Smalley, the youngest of four, attributed his success to “a wonderfully stable, loving family of strong Midwestern values”. His father’s life was “one of total dedication to both his work and his family”. While many attribute their success to triumph over some early hardship, Dr Smalley would acknowledge that “Until late in life I was never quite good enough for my father, and I suppose that is part of what drives me…”
But “It was from my mother that I first learned of Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Darwin…She had big plans for me, and loved me beyond all reason.” In addition, “my mother’s youngest sibling, Dr Sara Jane Rhoads…was the only scientist in our extended family…She was my hero.” He also credited his colleagues, students, and - surprising to many -“real-world experience” helping Shell and Exxon purify petroleum products.
Dr Smalley’s love of science – and it’s applications - endured to the end: only a week ago he called me (a scientific collaborator and fellow traveler through chemotherapy) to say he had invented a way to use nanotubes to heat tumor cells. A few hours before he died at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, surrounded by family, he and his students reviewed two breakthroughs in the laboratory, made just one day before
The power and unpredictability of nanotechnology has also engendered legitimate concerns about potential toxicities. Dr Smalley’s quiet thoughtfulness and sense of humor did much to quell the hysteria, yet address real dangers.
Also noteworthy was his persistence in reaching out to scientists in the Texas Medical Center and at Johnson Space Center, who over a decade came to realize the potential of nanotechnology, an example being the six-university/NASA Alliance for NanoHealth we formed with help from Congressman John Culberson in 2003. In recognition, University of Texas President James T. Willerson ordered flags to half-mast to honor a man who taught and inspired not only Rice students but students all over the world. Among other honors being considered: a bridge across Houston’s Main Street so that the path he blazed from Rice to the Medical Center can more easily be trod by students who hope to use nanotechnology to defeat disease.
Thanks to Rick Smalley, in a few decades the world should be smaller, smarter, cleaner, and safer. He made of the small a whole new world, and shared this enormous gift with memorable dedication, patience and generosity.
S. Ward Casscells, MD
Founding Chairman, Alliance for NanoHealth
Tyson Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Public Health
Vice President for Biotechnology
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston