Bob Curl died on July 3, 2022. He’s maybe finest often called a member of the workforce at Rice College that in 1985 found the carbon-60 molecule buckminsterfullerene and the category of all carbon molecules identified collectively because the fullerenes. C60, which got here to be often called buckyball, was discovered to spontaneously assemble from sizzling carbon vapor. This discovering not solely opened up a brand new chapter within the science of carbon, nevertheless it additionally prompted the seek for different nanomaterials, finally offering an early basis for the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Curl was born in 1933 in Alice, Texas. He was the son of a Methodist minister and spent a lot of his youth shifting between small cities in South Texas. At age 9 he obtained a chemistry set for Christmas. Curl wrote that “inside every week, I made a decision to grow to be a chemist.” He attended Rice College (which charged no tuition on the time), and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1954. Bob traveled to UC Berkeley to do his PhD[?] work within the bodily chemistry laboratory of Kenneth Pitzer, the place he investigated the thermodynamic properties of fluids. Pitzer helped him safe a postdoctoral fellowship in E. Vivid Wilson’s microwave spectroscopy lab at Harvard, after which he returned to Rice as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in 1958, the place he remained throughout his profession.
Bob constructed a molecular spectroscopy program that developed over time from a deal with elementary microwave research of small molecules to technically demanding laser spectroscopies of transient species, together with free radicals. At any time when a brand new radiation supply made a beforehand unavailable frequency vary accessible, Bob was prepared with an fascinating molecular physics drawback, typically using quantitative spectroscopic measurements to handle the thermodynamic properties of gases or to determine vital response intermediates.
Bob delighted in collaborating along with his friends, together with his Rice colleagues Frank Tittel, Graham Glass, and Philip Brooks. Among the many many scientists that Bob met exterior the partitions of Rice, he was notably fascinated by Harry Kroto, who had constructed a molecular spectroscopy lab on the College of Sussex within the UK and was finding out a novel class of transient cyanoacetylene molecules of composition H-(C)n-C≡N, which had been hypothesized to kind within the clouds of carbon wealthy stars.
In 1976 Rick Smalley delivered to Rice the know-how of supersonic molecular beams, which he had developed as a postdoctoral fellow within the College of Chicago laboratory of Donald Levy and Lennard Wharton. Molecules entrained inside supersonic beams could possibly be readily cooled down to a couple levels Kelvin, thus dramatically simplifying the related molecular spectra, and opening up new bodily chemistry research of more and more complicated molecules. Amongst these complicated molecules had been clusters of refractory supplies. Rick had discovered that molecular beams of such clusters could possibly be shaped by the laser vaporization of an acceptable goal positioned within the throat of a supersonic nozzle. Rick teamed up with Bob to collaborate on this uncommon and thrilling analysis. Bob knew of an issue for which this method was ideally suited, and so he invited Harry Kroto to go to Rice. Bob’s primary speculation was that Rick’s cluster experiment may emulate the astrophysical situations that yielded the cyanoacetylenes. Certainly one of us (JRH) was a graduate pupil within the Smalley lab and labored with Harry on these experiments, which led to the invention of C60 and the fullerenes. Our experiments virtually instantly established that C60 was a uniquely dominant carbon cluster with a scarcity of chemical reactivity that urged it had no reactive ‘edges’, as is likely to be anticipated from a (flat) graphene fragment. Whereas Harry, Rick, and I had all spent a night fascinated with potential C60 molecular constructions, it was Rick who got here into the lab on a Tuesday morning with a beer-stained paper mannequin of C60. Most of us had been satisfied that this straightforward construction needed to be the reason behind our placing information set. Nevertheless, Bob’s nature was scientific warning. He labored that day to persuade himself (and us) that C60 had at the least some extent of resonance stabilization, just like the Kekulè construction of benzene. We considered Bob as our ‘insurance coverage coverage.’ If we might persuade Bob of one thing, then we had been most likely proper! For this discovery, and for its eventual position in launching the sector of nanotech, Harry, Bob and Rick obtained the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Though Bob was credited as a cofounder of nanotechnology and infrequently requested to talk on the subject, he didn’t take into account himself an knowledgeable. Actually, his major pursuits remained in creating and utilizing new quantitative spectroscopic strategies with each outdated and new collaborators, and that’s how he spent a lot of the remainder of his profession earlier than retiring in 2012.
In parallel along with his analysis profession, Bob was a devoted and nurturing educator. He remembered his humble beginnings, and he went out of his option to make new college students to Rice really feel welcome. He was the Grasp of Lovett Faculty from 1968 to 1972, which was a very difficult period for the scholars and people guiding them. He understood the stresses that the Vietnam warfare and the extraordinary educational environment of Rice positioned on his expenses. Whereas many college students felt Bob’s courses had been ‘too onerous’, Bob himself was considered as remarkably beneficiant with the time he spent exterior of the classroom serving to college students.
To those that made the transition from pupil to colleague, Bob was a particular good friend. He was genuinely modest about his personal accomplishments and at all times able to have fun these of others. The story of a gathering with the Rice President after the Nobel Prize was introduced is telling. The President requested Bob and Rick what he might do for them in recognition of the glory that they’d delivered to Rice. Bob requested if it is likely to be potential to place a bicycle rack close to the constructing the place he had his workplace and labs. In each little and massive methods, Bob made everybody round him higher.
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Heath, J.R., Williams, R.S. Robert F. Curl (1933–2022).
Nat. Nanotechnol. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-022-01195-0