Washington DC Nano News - A Buckyball for Bob

Margaret Glass

authored by Margaret Glass, ASTC

I actually went to the Nanomedicine briefing for a somewhat shallower reason than the previous post would imply. I sometimes get tired of taxing my brain with new nanofacts, and admit that there is large portion of this field that I will never understand. Still, the sociology of nanoscientists fascinates me, probably because they are such a diverse group and are unaccustomed to being lumped together. When asked, most identify themselves as chemists, engineers, medical doctors, toxicologists, etc. Who among them might be called simply a "nanoscientist"?

When I read the list of presenters, one name stood out: Robert Curl of Rice University, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 with Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley for their discovery of fullerenes. It’s not everyday that you get to meet a Nobel laureate, so I packed up a few of the NISE Net buckyballs and went to the Hill. I'm not sure exactly what I had in mind. One of my colleagues had suggested I get them signed by Robert Curl and spread them around the NISE Network. I guess I thought I could use them as a sort of talking point to introduce myself to him and see if he had ever heard of the project. After the briefing, there was quite a bit of milling around and photo-taking. I'm not sure who the photographers were there for – they could have been part of the Federal Technology Watch team, or following Mike Roco from NSF, or even the Representative from Texas who had so vocally announced himself to his constituency. I noticed Robert Curl had moved toward the back of the room and was hovering uncertainly, so I decided to take the opportunity to introduce myself. I began by mentioning a recent visit to Rice University, and the observation that Houston has emerged as a core research area for nanoscience. Then I brought out the buckyball to show him, and explained that it was one of our signature give-aways (technical term: “tchachki”). He was amused, then upon closer scrutiny admitted what a nice work it was. He said; “We used to give something like this away, but it wasn't nearly as nice.” I proudly pointed out the dye-cut nature, the perfectly fitting tabs, and the easy portable nature of the pre-assembled version (and gave some to his colleagues). He laughed and asked, “Who made this?” which gave me a perfect lead into the NISE Network. He perked up more when I described to him the carbon nanotube models NISE Net makes out of black tubular balloons (based on a design by the UW-Madison MRSEC). He shared that one time they got a little crazy on the Rice campus and made what they considered the world's longest nanotube out of chemical modeling connectors. If memory serves, he said it was 400 m long (that's 400,000,000,000 nm). I eventually did ask him to sign one of the buckyballs, but only one. A few weeks later, Robert Curl retired. The Houston Chronicle published a biographical sketch about him, that follows the path of his carrier and discoveries.