20 years a laureate

This month, Rice celebrates Robert Curl and the 20th anniversary of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Curl, the late Richard Smalley and Harry Kroto won the prize for their discovery of the buckyball.

This month, Rice celebrates Robert Curl and the 20th anniversary of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Curl, the late Richard Smalley and Harry Kroto won the prize for their discovery of the buckyball. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Rice’s Nobel winner Robert Curl discusses how one lives gracefully with the world’s most prestigious prize

Robert Curl ’54 will be the center of attention at Rice University this month as the 20th anniversary of his Nobel Prize in chemistry approaches.

Curl retired four years ago, but you wouldn’t know it from the schedule he keeps. At 83, Rice’s Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences keeps about as busy as when he did the work in the mid-’80s that earned him the Nobel, and all the years before while earning his bachelor’s at Rice, a doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley and serving as a postdoc at Harvard.

“I work every day and most weekends,” he said during a recent stop at the Smalley-Curl Institute. That’s between travels to represent Rice or talk about his work at scientific gatherings.

He will be honored at an Oct. 21 reception planned by the Wiess School of Natural Sciences at 4 p.m. at Brockman Hall for Physics, Room 101. (Contact Pamela Jones for details.)

Curl, who joined the Rice chemistry faculty in 1958, spent most of his career studying the spectra, structures and kinetics of free radicals and other substances via spectroscopy. Recently, he has turned his attention to economics, mathematically modeling such disparate subjects as coal versus gas for energy production to the effects of automation on the nation’s economy with Dagobert Brito, Rice’s Peterkin Professor of Political Economy.

In the middle, Curl detoured into nanoscience when an acquaintance, Harry Kroto, then a professor at the University of Sussex, came calling to use Rice equipment to study how carbon chains form in space.

Those experiments led to the early morning phone call Oct. 9, 1996, to inform Curl, Kroto and Rice colleague Richard Smalley of their Nobel for discovering the carbon-60 molecule, aka the buckminsterfullerene — or buckyball.

Their work sparked the field of nanoscience and indirectly led in subsequent years to the development of carbon nanotubes and the two-dimensional material graphene for material, medical and electronics use.

Curl is the last of the Nobel trio standing. Smalley died in 2005 and Kroto died last April, though the graduate student co-authors of the paper that announced the discovery, Sean O’Brien and James Heath, continue to do research.

While Smalley became an advocate for nanotechnology, helping bring into being the National Nanotechnology Initiative during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Curl has remained low-key over the years and contributed in countless ways to research at Rice.

Robert Curl accepts the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Robert Curl accepts the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Laureate Andre Geim lamented that “my life is no longer my own” when he won a Nobel for the discovery of graphene mere days before a scheduled appearance at Rice for the 25th anniversary of the buckyball discovery. Despite mounting demands on his time, Geim graciously appeared in Houston via Skype instead.

Curl knows how he felt. “Well, that’s true,” he said. “For the first year, it’s not your own. You gradually, over the years, begin to take it back.”

Rice News visited with Curl on the eve of the anniversary to talk about two decades as a Nobel laureate and the nano revolution he helped create. This interview is edited for length.

Q: How has being a laureate affected your daily life?

A: It actually hasn’t affected my daily life very much. I guess the main thing is that I get lots of emails from people asking me to do things that I don’t want to do. And I don’t do them.

There are things I will accept regardless of how I feel about doing them, but they usually have some emotional attachment to them. So I do spend a few minutes more a day saying, “No, I won’t do that.”

I’ve certainly done a lot more traveling because there are things that I feel like I want to do. You have friends you owe favors to, things like that.

Q: So you don’t feel like you’ve missed anything because of the prize?

A: I think that’s correct. It’s definitely been a plus.

Q: What has it meant for your research?

It does give me a platform for pushing my current research, which is in economics, because it gives me the opportunity to go to various venues and discuss it. Our topic is the effect of automation on the U.S. economy. I’m collaborating with Bob Brito in economics.

I would say it’s been a plus to continue research, but when I retired I changed fields, and it’s been a lot of fun working in the new field.

Q: Did the Nobel lead to collaborations you would not have had otherwise?

A: Probably the only one in that category was when I worked for a while trying to improve sequencing DNA. I worked with a person over at Baylor College of Medicine. He might not have ever heard about me except for that.

I got out of that because I realized there were a whole bunch of really smart people coming up with all sorts of novel ideas for how to improve DNA sequencing and it seemed like they were going to get the job done without my help.

Q: The story of the buckyball goes that Exxon had found it but discounted it – but the Rice team did not (discount it), though it took a long time to convince people you were right. What was that like?

Richard Smalley, left, and Robert Curl.

Richard Smalley, left, and Robert Curl.

A: It never bothered me. I was pretty convinced that the original buckyball story was correct. It seemed in some ways more amazing that you could make a wide variety of large pure carbon cages, the fullerenes.

If people presented an argument for being skeptical, our team would respond with experiments concerned with addressing the points they raised. The results of those experiments supported our original proposal.

We got into the carbon business because of Harry’s interest in carbon chain molecules that he had identified in interstellar clouds by radioastronomy. Harry proposed that unlike other interstellar molecules that are known to be produced by more complex chemistry, these chains were simply produced by carbon condensation. He came to Rice to do experiments to test this idea.

What made the results of these experiments different from the Exxon work is that Harry and the three students involved (including graduate student Yuan Liu) happened to find conditions where the peak for carbon 60 became much more pronounced than was shown in the Exxon data.

From the data that the Exxon group published, there was no reason for them to think there was anything particularly special about C-60. It just happened in the work we were doing checking out Harry’s ideas that we hit upon conditions where C-60 was much more prominent.

If Mother Nature is trying to tell you something, you need to listen. Part of the things that made me feel secure was that there were two other well-known scientists who were in it with me. So we’d all go down together!

Anyway, the reviewers of our letter to Nature were dubious that it was correct, but they said, “Well, it’s interesting, be it on their head if it’s wrong. Publish it.”

Q: Has it been satisfying to watch nanotechnology develop?

A: There’s a confusion between nanotechnology and nanoscience. Nanotechnology has been around over 1,700 years, even though people didn’t know they were doing it. I can cite three different blind uses of nanotechnology before the term was invented. With regard to trying to understand nanoscale phenomena, i.e., nanoscience, the only early area was the field of colloid chemistry developed over 100 years ago, but it fell out of favor and became very quiescent and seemingly dead by mid-20th century.

Curl in the lab.

Curl in the lab.

In particular, Rick (Smalley) got very excited that single-walled carbon nanotubes weren’t so hard to make. And he could see lots of potential uses for them. Some important developments in new instruments indicated to him that the tools to make progress in the science of nanoscale materials now existed. So that sort of set the stage for Rick to begin beating a drum for federal support for nanotechnology.

People would ask him all the time, “What good is C-60? What can you do with C-60?” and he didn’t have a good practical answer for that. So we used to talk to each about, “The kid hasn’t got a job yet.”

He got very interested in doing something for humanity, something practical that would change the world. Rick always wanted to change the world. And so he began beating the tub for, “Let’s have the government have an initiative for nanotechnology.”

Q: Why didn’t you follow Smalley in his quest to promote nanotechnology?

A: I’ll tell you how I lost interest in carbon fullerenes. Rick was collecting all the papers about fullerenes. He put them in three-ring binders. … I came in one day and he had four of those rings finished, and I think the fifth one started, and I said, “I don’t want to be in any field where it would be a full-time job keeping up with the literature.”

That’s why I abandoned it. And also, it’s not really the kind of thing I like to do because I’m much more mathematically inclined than being a synthetic chemist, which is what Rick turned himself into.

Q: You were more of a theory guy?

A: Well, a lot of the spectroscopy work was solving puzzles, which involved a lot of mathematics, and I did like developing theory. That’s what I’m working on right now, developing models. I’m really doing math for this – definitely not cutting-edge math, but hard enough for me – right now.

Q: Your colleagues at Rice say you often go way beyond the call in helping other researchers, and value the unique perspective you bring. Does your status as a laureate make you feel more responsible?

A: It’s a responsibility that everybody has! If your colleague comes to you and wants to discuss something with you, it would be a crime to not discuss it.

As they probably will tell you, I love to ask questions. I’m not too keen about answering questions, but I love to ask questions. And I try to ask questions that make me think and maybe sometimes make them think.

Editor’s note: For more background on the research that led to the prize, you can read the Nobel Prize press release from the day of the award or Curl’s own Nobel lecture.



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.