Though Visible, Not Everyone Saw the Unexpected Buckyball

(p. A24) Robert F. Curl Jr., who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry as one of the discoverers of remarkably simple but completely unexpected carbon molecules known as buckyballs, died on July 3 at a retirement home in Houston. He was 88.

His death was announced by Rice University, where Dr. Curl was a professor emeritus of chemistry.

Buckyballs, with their round, hollow structure, upended chemists’ notions of what was possible for the shapes of molecules. A flood of scientists started studying them, spurring the nascent field of nanotechnology and dreams of building molecule-size machines.

. . .

The finding was serendipitous, because they had been looking for something else.

“You could argue it wasn’t any of our areas of interest,” James R. Heath, a graduate student of Dr. Smalley’s who performed many of the buckyball experiments, said in an interview.

. . .

For the experiment, Dr. Kroto was interested in molecules containing long chains of carbon that had been observed in interstellar space. He hypothesized that the long-chain molecules were created in the atmospheres of carbon-rich red giant stars.

. . .

At a science conference in 1984, Dr. Kroto ran into Dr. Curl, an old friend. Dr. Curl told him about an apparatus of Dr. Smalley’s that used a laser to create an intensely hot vapor that coalesced into clusters. Dr. Kroto realized that this apparatus could create conditions similar to those in the atmosphere of a red giant.

. . .

. . . Dr. Smalley finally agreed to try it, and the three professors, along with Dr. Heath and two graduate students, started their work.

They indeed discovered the long carbon chains that Dr. Kroto had wanted to find.

They also found something else — the buckyballs.

Dr. Heath said Dr. Curl provided a healthy dose of skepticism during the 11-day whirlwind of discovery.

“All of us were like excitable kids,” Dr. Heath said. “And Bob was like the adult in the room. And he would come up with reasons that we had to go back and test and make sure that this was right or that was correct. We all viewed Bob not like he was a devil’s advocate — more like he was an insurance policy. If Bob agreed with you, you were probably right.”

It turned out that the Exxon experiments had also created small numbers of buckyballs, but those researchers had overlooked them in their data. At Rice, the scientists realized what they had found.

For the full obituary see:

Kenneth Chang. “Robert F. Curl Jr., 88, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry.” The New York Times (Thursday, July 21, 2022): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 20, 2022, and has the title “Robert F. Curl Jr., Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Dies at 88.”

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