Nobel team reunites for Rice’s Buckyball Discovery Conference
BY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News staff
One simple conversation may have spread the legend of the buckyball farther and wider than the nearly quarter-century of learning and teaching that preceded it.
Sir Harry Kroto, a member of the Nobel Prize-winning carbon-60 discovery team that reunited at Rice University this week, said his chat with an acquaintance at Google turned the world on to buckminsterfullerenes in a way that nothing else ever had.
“A year and half ago, I met someone from Google, and said, ‘Why not put the 25th anniversary of the buckyball discovery on the Google doodle page?'” Kroto told a high school science teacher who sought advice on inspiring students. When an animated buckyball appeared on the Google home page in early September, Kroto said one correspondent estimated “more people learned about buckyballs on that one day than in the 25 years the research has been carried on … because they were clicking on that thing.
“So the secret is, get your molecule on Google.”
Kroto, formerly of the University of Sussex and now the Francis Eppes Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University, and the surviving members of the team had a lively discussion with attendees at the Buckyball Discovery Conference, the high point of Rice’s Year of Nano celebration, at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business on Oct. 11.
Kroto and Robert Curl, Rice’s University Professor Emeritus and Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences, along with former Rice graduate students James Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu, talked for two hours about their memories of the discovery, the state of research and their late friend Richard Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Curl and Kroto and for whom Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology is named.
Curl said researchers who had looked at carbon for 30 years reacted strongly to the buckyball announcement in 1985, and many of those reactions were “not kind.”
One paper from an Exxon lab that carried out similar experiments on carbon — using a furnace built at Rice — was devastating. The paper titled ‘C60La: a deflated soccer ball?’ appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1986, squawking that the Rice team’s results were “fraught with complications which can lead one astray.”
“To this day, I still cannot read that paper,” said Heath, now the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. “I got so mad… they had missed it, and they were just throwing smoke in the air.”
Nobody rested easy until Donald Huffman, professor emeritus of physics (and in attendance at the conference) and his team at the University of Arizona, produced buckyballs in quantity in 1990, confirming the Rice discovery once and for all.
“When we started this work, we knew what carbon did,” said O’Brien, now vice president of process engineering at MEMtronics. “It makes diamonds, it makes graphite. We knew all we need to know about carbon.” But discovering a third form of carbon in C60 “showed us … we don’t know everything. It opened our eyes to a humbling experience. There’s a lot more out there than we think we know,” O’Brien said.
Curl sympathized with scientists who struggle for years to solve a problem, only to be topped by “wet-behind-the-ears” researchers who stumble on the solution.
For scientists, he said, “It’s really important to learn how to enjoy frustration.” He said he had “always admired people who found a hard problem and, by sheer force of intellect, solved it.”
That wasn’t the case with the buckyball discovery, which Curl characterized as a happy accident made possible by Kroto’s determination to solve a problem he said had puzzled cosmologists for 90 years, combined with Rice’s technological know how.
Curl and Kroto remembered how challenging it was to get Smalley on board with the project. Kroto intended to study carbon chains in interstellar bands by recreating the conditions that form them with a specialized device in Smalley’s lab, a supersonic cluster beam apparatus called AP3.
“The most unusual thing about it was that it was such a reluctant collaboration,” Curl said. “Rick had a scientific trajectory and we had this other problem we wanted to focus on. This was a sidetrack. It took a fair amount of persuasion to persuade Rick to do this.”
But the discovery that turned all their lives around ultimately led Smalley to convince Rice to set up the world’s first carbon nanotechnology center, which continues in his name.
“Long before the buckyball discovery, other universities were trying to hire Rick away,” Curl recalled. Smalley seriously considered their offers but “decided the time was right to make a strong push in nanotechnology.
“I think what went though his mind was that ‘If I go to Harvard or Berkeley, I would have almost zero impact because of the size and stature of the universities. I won’t be able to change Berkeley or Harvard, but I can change Rice,'” Curl said.
He said Smalley convinced Rice to “pony up the resources to make it a leader in nanotechnology,” to the tune of $30 million, primarily to attract top-notch faculty to the university. “This is really what made Rice develop,” Curl said.
The team discussed the collaborative nature of research at Rice, which Kroto said was not common among departments at other universities then — or now. “The structure of universities is really counterproductive,” he said.
“Rice had unusual foresight with the Rice Quantum Institute (founded in 1979),” Heath said. “It was unusual at the time. There weren’t many places where you would have a diverse group in the physical sciences come together.”
In particular, Curl noted his long-standing and ongoing collaboration with Frank Tittel, Rice’s J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, whose expertise in lasers was key to the construction of AP3, and therefore to the buckyball discovery.
The discussion that kicked off the annual T.T. Chao Symposium on Innovation, which opened the Buckyball Discovery Conference this year, was one of many great moments during the Week of Nano. The Buckyball Discovery Gala on Oct. 10 featured a welcome by Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (who read a letter of congratulations from former President George W. Bush), a microscopy demonstration by Rep. John Culberson, a talk by National Science Board chairman Ray Bowen and a “nano symphony” by Rice composer Anthony Brandt.
The conference included lunchtime addresses by Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Ray Johnson, chief technology officer of Year of Nano sponsor Lockheed Martin; the National Historic Chemical Landmark presentation with Mayor Annise Parker and Joe Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society; talks by Kroto and Curl as part of the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s Civic Scientist lecture series, and a parade of the world’s top nanotechnology experts.
One of those experts, Andre Geim, intended to come to Houston for the conference, but winning the Nobel Prize for Physics last week changed his plans. Geim, who shared the Nobel with his then-post doctoral researcher for the discovery of graphene, appeared on Oct. 12 at a packed Shell Auditorium via Skype from his University of Manchester office. He delivered apologies, congratulations to the buckyball team and a message that echoed O’Brien’s about what we think we know.
Geim said the Nobel reflected the work of “hundreds and thousands” of researchers, including many at Rice, who are looking into the possibilities offered by the atom-thick form of carbon. “If there will be no more Nobel Prizes on graphene, I would be deeply disappointed,” he said.