Richard Errett Smalley

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Richard Errett Smalley, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996

Birthplace: Akron, OH, USA
Death: Died in Houston, TX, USA
Cause of death: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Immediate Family:

Son of Frank Dudley Smalley, Jr. and Virginia Virginia Smalley
Husband of Private User
Ex-husband of Private User; <private> Chapieski and <private> Chauvin
Father of Private User and <private> Smalley
Brother of <private> Smalley; Linda Rings and <private> Smalley

Occupation: Professor of organic chemistry, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996, professor of chemistry and physics, Professor, Physical Chemist, Researcher, Teacher
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

    • Private User
    • Private User
    • <private> Chapieski
    • <private> Chauvin
    • <private> Smalley
    • Private User
    • <private> Smalley
    • sister
    • <private> Smalley
    • Private User

About Richard Errett Smalley

Richard Errett Smalley (June 6, 1943 – October 28, 2005) was the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, in Houston, Texas. In 1996, along with Robert Curl, also a professor of chemistry at Rice, and Harold Kroto, a professor at the University of Sussex, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of a new form of carbon, buckminsterfullerene ("buckyballs").

Early life

Smalley, the youngest of 4 siblings, was born in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.

Smalley attended Hope College before transferring to the University of Michigan where he received his B.S. in 1965. Between his studies, he worked in industry, where he developed his unique managerial style. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1973. He completed postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, with Lennard Wharton and Donald Levy, where he was a pioneer in the development of supersonic beam laser spectroscopy.

Fullerenes and nanotechnology

Smalley's research in physical chemistry investigated formation of inorganic and semiconductor clusters using pulsed molecular beams and time of flight mass spectrometry. As a consequence of this expertise, Robert Curl introduced him to Harry Kroto in order to investigate a question about the constituents of astronomical dust. These are carbon rich grains expelled by old stars such as R Corona Borealis. The result of this collaboration was the discovery of C60 and the fullerenes as the third allotropic form of carbon.

The research that earned Kroto, Smalley and Curl the Nobel Prize mostly comprised three articles. First was the discovery of C60 in the Nov. 14, 1985, issue of Nature "C60: Buckminsterfullerene". The second article detailed the discovery of the endohedral fullerenes in "Lanthanum Complexes of Spheroidal Carbon Shells" in the Journal of the American Chemical Society v. 107 p 7779 (1985). The third announced the discovery of the fullerenes in "Reactivity of Large Carbon Clusters: Spheroidal Carbon Shells and Their Possible Relevance to the Formation and Morphology of Soot" in the Journal of Physical Chemistry v. 90 p 525 (1986).

Although only three people can be cited for a Nobel Prize, graduate students James R. Heath and Sean C. O'Brien participated in the work. Smalley mentions them in his Nobel Lecture. Heath went on to become a professor at Caltech and O'Brien joined Texas Instruments and is now at MEMtronics.

Following nearly a decade's worth of research into the formation of alternate fullerene compounds (e.g. C28, C70), as well as the synthesis of endohedral metallofullerenes (M@C60), reports of the identification of carbon nanotube structures led Smalley to begin investigating the iron-catalyzed synthesis of carbon nanotubes.

As a consequence of these researches, Smalley was able to persuade the administration of Rice University under then-president Malcolm Gillis to create the Rice Center for Nanoscience and Technology (CNST), focusing on any aspect of molecular nanotechnology.

Smalley's latest research was focused on carbon nanotubes, specifically focusing on the chemical synthesis side of nanotube research. He is well known for his group's invention of the high-pressure carbon monoxide (HiPco) method of producing large batches of high-quality nanotubes. Smalley spun off his work into a company, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. and associated nanotechnologies.

Dispute on molecular assemblers

He was an outspoken critic of the idea of molecular assemblers, as advocated by K. Eric Drexler and introduced scientific objections to them. His two main objections, which he had termed the “fat fingers problem" and the "sticky fingers problem”, argued against the feasibility of molecular assemblers being able to precisely select and place individual atoms. He also believed that Drexler’s speculations about apocalyptic dangers of molecular assemblers threaten the public support for development of nanotechnology. He debated Drexler in an exchange of letters which were published in Chemical & Engineering News as a point-counterpoint feature.

Later life

In 1999 Smalley was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which later became chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

In his later years, Smalley was very outspoken about the need for cheap, clean energy, which he described as the number one problem facing humanity in the 21st century. He felt that improved science education was key, and went to great lengths to encourage young students to consider careers in science. His slogan for this effort was "Be a scientist, save the world."

Skeptical of religion in general for most of his life, Smalley became a Christian shortly before his death. (See the Wikiquote for his personal statement in May 2005.)

In some of his later presentations, he presented a list entitled "Top Ten Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years". His list in order of priority is:

  • 1. Energy
  • 2. Water
  • 3. Food
  • 4. Environment
  • 5. Poverty
  • 6. Terrorism & war
  • 7. Disease
  • 8. Education
  • 9. Democracy
  • 10. Population


In making the following quotes, Smalley believed in Old Earth creationism, which supports the theory that the Earth that is billions of years old.

"Recently I have gone back to church regularly with a new focus to understand as best I can what it is that makes Christianity so vital and powerful in the lives of billions of people today, even though almost 2000 years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ. Although I suspect I will never fully understand, I now think the answer is very simple: it’s true. God did create the universe about 13.7 billion years ago, and of necessity has involved Himself with His creation ever since. The purpose of this universe is something that only God knows for sure, but it is increasingly clear to modern science that the universe was exquisitely fine-tuned to enable human life. We are somehow critically involved in His purpose. Our job is to sense that purpose as best we can, love one another, and help Him get that job done.”

Following his death, the publishers of the Old Earth creationism book "Who Was Adam" issued a news release that offered this quote: "Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading ‘Origins of Life’, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, ‘Who Was Adam?’, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.”

At the Tuskegee University's 79th Annual Scholarship Convocation/Parents' Recognition Program he made the following statement regarding the subject of evolution while urging his audience to take seriously their role as the higher species on this planet. “The burden of proof is on those who don't believe that 'Genesis' was right, and there was a creation, and that Creator is still involved. We are the only species that can destroy the Earth or take care of it and nurture all that live on this very special planet. I'm urging you to look on these things. For whatever reason, this planet was built specifically for us. Working on this planet is an absolute moral code. ... Let's go out and do what we were put on Earth to do."

Smalley died on October 28, 2005, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, at the age of 62.

Old Earth creationist and astronomer Hugh Ross spoke at Smalley's funeral, November 2, 2005. Audio of speech is available.



  • Harold W. Dodds Fellow, Princeton University, 1973
  • Alfred P. Sloan Fellow, 1978–1980
  • Fellow of the American Physical Society, 1987
  • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2003

Awards and prizes

  • Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics, American Physical Society, 1991
  • Popular Science Magazine Grand Award in Science & Technology, 1991
  • APS International Prize for New Materials, 1992 (Joint with R. F. Curl & H. W. Kroto)
  • Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award, U.S. Department of Energy, 1992
  • Welch Award in Chemistry, Robert A. Welch Foundation, 1992
  • Auburn-G.M. Kosolapoff Award, Auburn Section, American Chemical Society, 1992
  • Southwest Regional Award, American Chemical Society, 1992
  • William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society, 1993
  • The John Scott Award, City of Philadelphia, 1993
  • Hewlett-Packard Europhysics Prize, European Physical Society, 1994
  • Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society, 1994
  • Madison Marshall Award, North Alabama Section, American Chemical Society, 1995
  • Franklin Medal, The Franklin Institute, 1996
  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1996
  • Rice University Homecoming Queen, Rice University Undergraduates, 1996
  • Distinguished Civilian Public Service Award, Department of the Navy, 1997
  • American Carbon Society Medal, 1997
  • Top 75 Distinguished Contributors, Chemical & Engineering News, 1998
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Small Times Magazine, 2003
  • Glenn T. Seaborg Medal, University of California at Los Angeles, 2002
  • Distinguished Alumni Award, Hope College, 2005
  • 50th Anniversary Visionary Award, SPIE – International Society for Optical Engineering, 2005

See also: "Richard E. Smalley - Autobiography". 21 Oct 2011

General reference: Adams, W Wade; Baughman, Ray H (2005). "Retrospective: Richard E. Smalley (1943-2005).". Science 310 (5756): pp. 1916. 2005 Dec 23. doi:10.1126/science.1122120. PMID 16373566

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Richard Errett Smalley's Timeline

June 6, 1943
Akron, OH, USA
October 28, 2005
Age 62
Houston, TX, USA