Robert Curl Jr.
Robert F. Curl Jr. was born in Alice, Texas in 1933. Quite remarkably, he stayed in Texas for almost his entire research career. After completing his PhD in Berkeley, California, he accepted an assistant professorship at the Texan Rice University in 1958 and remained there until his retirement, dealing with various problems from the field of physical chemistry. Still - and quite obviously, Curls scientific impulses reached far beyond Texan borders. When he received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Richard E. Smalley (who also worked at Rice) and Sir Harold Kroto (at the time at the University of Sussex, UK), this was a true example of national and international scientific collaboration. In the present lecture, delivered in Lindau two years after the award, Curl gives a detailed, historical account of this collaboration, which led to the discovery of the Nobel Prize-winning, football-shaped C60 molecule, also known as the Buckminster fullerene or buckyball.In the 1980s, Curl and Smalley were studying metal clusters with an apparatus Smalley had developed in his laboratory. Using high-energy lasers, this apparatus could convert metals (or other materials) into a plasma. The latter was then allowed to expand into a vacuum, where chemical reactions took place. The products of these reactions could eventually be detected with an attached mass spectrometer. This laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus attracted the attention of Harold Kroto, who was, at the time, studying the formation of carbon chains in space using microwave spectroscopy. Kroto believed that he could simulate the conditions in space using the equipment in Smalley’s lab (indeed, Curl mentions in his talk that ‘Kroto fell in love with this machine.’). Curl established the contact between the two scientists and Kroto came to Smalley’s laboratory in September 1985. Only 11 days after he arrived, the three scientists submitted a letter to the journal Nature reporting the discovery of a football-shaped C60 molecule, which they produced by vaporizing graphite using Smalley’s apparatus. This letter was the first of three publications that should lead to the the Nobel Prize, rendering Kroto’s 11 day visit to Rice the probably most efficient and rewarding scientific collaboration ever. However, Curl also mentions some other contributions to the C60 story, who were not rewarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In his autobiography  Curl states that ‘Jim and Sean were equal participants in the scientific discussions that directed the course of this work and actually did most of the experiments.’ In his talk, he further mentions that the C60 molecule had been predicted theoretically by others long before its experimental detection. In concluding, Curl outlines some of the developments that were triggered by C60 research. If the transition metal nickel is added to the graphite being vaporized, for example, carbon nanotubes (‘buckytubes’) are obtained. In contrast to the fullerenes, which have remained largely devoid of practical applications, nanotubes are seen as a promising candidate in various areas of material science and are already being used in turbines, sports gear and scientific instruments, to name a few. In 2006, in the frame of the last of three talks Curl gave in Lindau so far, he should discuss these and other new developments in the field of carbon based materials. David Siegel http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1996/curl.html