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Celebrating Rick Smalley

by Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief
October 9, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 41



Celebrating Rick Smalley

Too often in science we do not sufficiently appreciate the contribution an individual's personality can make to driving scientific progress and fostering the public's understanding and acceptance of science. I think of the late astronomer Carl Sagan who, despite important scientific contributions, for much of his life was not taken entirely seriously by many other scientists because of the dramatic flair he exhibited on the groundbreaking PBS television series "Cosmos" and his many other projects aimed at popularizing science.

This tendency is especially true of chemistry. In their public personas, at least, most chemists I have known have been buttoned-down, no-nonsense, let's-eschew-the-hype sorts of individuals. Chemistry is a serious science. Astronomers and physicists discern the hand of God in some of their research, and biologists, well, biologists get to study life itself. Chemists make stuff, much of it useful stuff. There are whole industries based on chemistry. Let's stick to the science and leave personalities out of it, chemists often insist.

We science writers go along with this, for the most part. That's why chemistry books are by far the smallest component of the science section of bookstores. That's why you don't see that many stories in the mainstream media focused on advances in chemistry. That's why, for the most part, C&EN is a pretty staid publication.

This week's cover story is a different kind of C&EN article about a different kind of chemist. "The World According To Rick," by Associate Editor Bethany Halford, is a tribute to Richard E. Smalley, the Rice University chemist who codiscovered fullerenes, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery, championed nanoscience and nanotechnology, and became an impassioned advocate for a comprehensive global energy research initiative before dying at age 62 in October 2005.

As I wrote at the time of his death, I knew Rick well and considered him a friend (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 3). I can say without reservation that Halford captures Smalley almost perfectly: his brilliance, charm, unbounded enthusiasm, humor, and even prickliness come through in Halford's compelling text. She talked to a large number of people who knew Rick and were influenced enormously by him, and captures well their voices as they reminisce about him.

Halford's story grew out of a four-day nanotube symposium honoring Smalley at last month's ACS meeting in San Francisco. Halford was not initially enthusiastic about covering the symposium, as she candidly notes. "Hearing top-notch nanotech researchers talk about their work for four days is a dream," she says. "But trying to write anything from that kind of symposium is a nightmare. To capture it in any meaningful way, I'd have needed to write a book.

"I also wondered if we were paying Smalley too much attention. But after the first day of the symposium, my entire perspective had changed. I've been reporting on nanotechnology for almost three years at C&EN, and didn't realize how key he had been in establishing carbon nanotechnology research and winning government dollars for nanotechnology research. I was also inspired by how open he'd been with his research, how he'd given materials to his competitors and encouraged others to enter the field. That attitude was just so unfamiliar to me among scientists. I came back to Washington, D.C., telling everyone I'd decided to adopt the Rick Smalley model for my own work. I hope that by capturing what he did in this article, other scientists might feel a kernel of inspiration as well."

In addition to Halford's profile of Smalley in the print edition of C&EN, please turn to C&EN Online where you will find much more on this great chemist. Twenty individuals who knew Smalley have shared their perceptions of him with Halford and these are collected on C&EN Online. There is also an illuminating sidebar about the genesis of the dramatic photograph that appears on this week's cover.

C&EN is dedicated to bringing its readers a comprehensive, engaging package of information about the chemical enterprise each week. Halford's celebration of Rick Smalley fits the bill perfectly.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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