Sometimes it is the smallest thing that makes the biggest difference. And in science, the discovery of a whole new type of molecule may make the difference for the future of medicine and engineering, thanks to Dr. Richard Smalley, Texas chemist and Nobel Prize winner.
Richard Errett Smalley was born in June 1943 in Akron, Ohio. He was the youngest of four and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Smalley later described it as a happy childhood with a stable and loving family. His father worked in the newspaper industry and eventually became the editor of a farming magazine.
Both his parents had a powerful impact on him. When he was a teenager, his mother went back to school and earned a bachelors degree. Smalley was fascinated by all the tales of great scientists his mother told him. As a youngster, he and his father also built and designed various gadgets. In high school, Smalley took four years of drafting classes where he learned about the importance of design and structure and read science books for hours on end.
His aunt, Dr. Sara Jane Rhoads, a respected chemist herself, encouraged him to study chemistry and gave him his first scientific job after high school — working in her organic chemistry lab at the University of Wyoming in 1961. Smalley then attended Hope College in Michigan for two years before transferring to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to complete his bachelors degree.
After his graduation, he went to work for Shell Chemical Co. in the quality control lab. He enrolled in the doctoral program at Princeton University in 1969, graduating in 1973. After he earned his doctorate, he began working with a team of scientists on the use of lasers for spectroscopy, understanding what light patterns certain substances emitted and absorbed in order to learn more about their properties. In 1976, he became a professor of chemistry at Rice University, making his move to Texas.
By the late 1970s, Smalley and a team of researchers at Rice began using these techniques to study carbon in new ways. Many scientists theorized that new configurations of carbon-containing molecules could pave the way to new energy sources or a variety of synthetic materials with all sorts of possible uses. Smalley’s work helped show that carbon atoms could organize in ways never before seen. By 1985, Smalley, along with Robert Curl, James Heath, Harold Kroto and James O’Brien discovered that carbon atoms could arrange themselves into a ball made of carbon. These 60-atom carbon molecules resembled soccer balls and were eventually dubbed “Buckminsterfullerenes,” after architect Buckminster Fuller and his famous geodesic domes.
The discovery of fullerenes was followed by the discovery of carbon nanotubes, molecule-size tubes with walls made entirely of a thin layer of carbon atoms. The scientific world was excited about the possibilities. One of the most intriguing possible uses was identified in medicine. Their structure would help aid imaging processes in MRI scans and X-rays. Additionally, portions of medicines and even genes could be “stored” inside them, making it easier to transport medicines or genes for gene therapy and research much easier and much more efficient.
Several researchers have theorized that one day nanotechnology could even be used to treat diseases such as cancer. With the ability to work on the molecular level, repairing damaged genes as seen with cancer and other maladies could become much easier in these instances.
Engineers realized that the discovery of fullerenes and nanotubes had created a whole new field — nanotechnology. By being able to repair cells and genes on the molecular level, Smalley and his team had created molecule-sized machines with endless possibilities. What once had been science fiction had become an exciting new reality.
Smalley was widely honored, and he pushed for funding for continued research and development of nanotechnology. In 1990, he co-founded the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice, later renamed for him. In 1996, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the highest honor in science, along with Curl and Kroto for their work discovering fullerenes.
In 1999, Smalley received the devastating news that he had cancer. He fought the disease for years, but the cancer gradually overtook his body. In the meantime, he fought for continued development of nanotechnology and encouraging students to pursue careers in science and engineering. He once told a crowd, “Be a scientist and save the world.” As part of this effort, he spoke out for the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2003 and to expand nanotechnology research. He died at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in October 2005 at the age of 62.
It was a life cut short, but it was one that had left an incredible impact. Congress honored him after his passing by naming him the Father of Nanotechnology. The foundation he laid with his work could one day herald a revolution in science and medicine scarcely imaginable today.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org