Robert Curl Jr. longed to be a chemist from the age of 9, when his parents gave him his first chemistry set. Curl, now 79, admits that a large part of his initial attraction was the prospect of seeing things explode.
"It's kind of embarrassing to explain," Curl says. "I liked the idea of making a little pile of something and dropping a single drop on it and having it ignite spontaneously. And you would get colorful smoke. And you would have explosions. And you would have all sorts of weird smells when you mixed the chemistry up."
The fact that the Texas-born Curl shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry -- by virtue of his role in the discovery of the "buckyball" -- makes his sheepish admission all the more endearing.
The son of a Methodist minister, Curl is quick to heap credit on fellow chemists Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto for the trio's 1985 discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball, a soccerball-shaped molecule that represented a new class of carbon compounds now known as fullerenes.
Their discovery stoked the imagination of the science community and paved the way for a new branch of chemistry -- nanotechnology -- that is poised to have a profound impact on manufacturing, medicine, agriculture, energy and other fields.
Curl, who spent his entire career as a professor at his undergraduate alma mater, Rice University, humbly describes the trio's discovery as "a moment of serendipity," noting that he and his fellow chemists were attempting to simulate the chemistry in the atmosphere of giant stars.
"We were just doing some experiments on vaporizing carbon and we started out with an entirely different purpose in mind," Curl recalls. "Our only claim to credit is that when opportunity knocked, we listened. We didn't ignore a deviant result or a strange result; instead we explored it and tried to figure out what it meant."
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