Discovery, history, and lucky accidents in chemistry | Interview with Dr. Robert Curl

We met with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Robert F. Curl to talk about lucky accidents in chemistry, his discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, his “wrong number” Nobel Prize phone call and so much more. Enjoy!

Discovery, history, and lucky accidents in chemistry | Interview with Dr. Robert Curl

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Robert F. Curl recalls the history of supersonic expansion/cooling studies and microwave spectroscopy, his “wrong number” Nobel Prize phone call, his discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, and lucky accidents in chemistry. Pitzer–Schlumberger Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus, and professor of chemistry emeritus at Rice University, Dr. Curl talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Chemist, Dr. Robert Curl

Interview Transcript

[music]

00:01 Robert Curl: Everything moves these days towards, let’s do something practical. And so there’s lots of people working with some incredibly beautiful work on using nanotechnology to make things practical.

[music]

00:19 Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have a special Nobel prize-winning guest, professor Bob Curl, who spent most of his academic career at Rice University, and he’s a chemist. So as a fellow person who trained in chemistry, I just have to ask, what have you found most exciting about being in the field of chemistry?

00:45 Robert Curl: Well, of course, the work that led to the prize was so obviously the most exciting thing that we have ever done. I’ve enjoyed lots of other things that I’ve done that were not involved with working with Rick Smalley or doing anything regarding to carbon chemistry. Most of my career has been in molecular spectroscopy, which is kind of a field that doesn’t lead to great excitement except to the people doing it, as a general rule. So I’m very proud of certain things I did in molecular spectroscopy. I also did work in chemical kinetics, primarily with free radical reactions. So that’s sort of a general thing about it. It is incredibly strange, actually. Rick did his graduate work at Princeton, with Elliot Bernstein, and his work at Princeton was in electric spectroscopy. And he did an incredible amount of work on his PhD, he learned all sorts of useful laboratory techniques, working with liquid helium temperatures, doing all sorts of the same work on historic effects. Got out of his graduate work, two publications resulted. Together they have been cited 16 times. Now, Rick has 23 papers with over 1,000 citations, and I expect that he spent more work on his graduate education than he did on any one of those.

03:00 Jed Macosko: Isn’t that interesting. First of all, tell me, how did you first meet Rick? Was it at Rice University, Rick Smalley?

03:07 Robert Curl: He came to interview for the job at Rice. This was in, as I recall it must have been the spring of 1976. And he had been doing incredibly exciting work as a post-doctoral at Chicago with... I’m trying to come up with the names frankly. Leonard Bernstein was not his post-doctorate advisor, but they worked together with... Gee, I’ve published papers with this guy.

03:50 Jed Macosko: It’s okay.

03:52 Robert Curl: Let me think about it for a minute. Don Levy.

03:57 Jed Macosko: Okay.

04:00 Robert Curl: And actually as soon as he came to Rice and presented his work, we were just excited. So it was astoundingly good work, so novel and thrilling, what he’d done, so effectively after he left the room, we had a quick vote. The championship thought was that we should hire him, but that we had to tell him, "Yes, we wanna hire you, but that only the President can make an official appointment." So anyway, he actually... This work that he did as a post-doc, he actually started himself. What happened was that after he did his research work at Princeton, and actually got the papers written, he moved with his wife and family to Chicago, and he still hadn’t finished a PhD because there was a final exam, and they had to do the cruel thing, at that time, at least, at Princeton, that after a guy has done all this work, they make him come up with an initial exciting new proposal for research. And so it happened that Don Levy was away, when he got to Chicago, so he wasn’t under any pressure to start there. Nobody was going to be working over anything, and he was coming up with his proposal, and he just came up with a proposal that actually for this work that led him to be hired at Rice. This was laser... This was cooling of supersonic cooling of molecules that appear... In fact his original aim was to make or he should resolve the structure of a complicated spectrum, but then it led to a whole lot of other things ultimately. So this was sort of a strange story.

06:16 Robert Curl: Hell, the... Leonard got involved was that he was the go-to guy at Chicago for supersonic cooling, supersonic expansions. And so, while Don was still in Europe, he went to see Leonard. Leonard had got all the ins and outs of supersonic expansions and cooling from Leonard. So this... As it was really a remarkable thing. Actually, I had already collaborated with Don Levy on the molecule that Rick started on for his... For reducing the complication spectrum carbon, sorry, nitrogen dioxide. So it turns out that science is sort of an incestuous thing when you hear about it, how people...

07:26 Jed Macosko: I know that is true. And one of the things that I really enjoyed when I was interviewing another Nobel Prize-winning scientist was just hearing about that first phone call, I’m sure it’s similar for everybody, but do you remember back in the ’90s when you got that phone call?

07:45 Robert Curl: Well, I didn’t get the phone call. [laughter] There’s a strange thing, apparently the Nobel Committee is very, very careful that the news doesn’t get out prematurely, okay? So what they... In order to maintain secrecy, sometimes they resort to using the telephone directory. And so they had called Houston and asked the telephone directory for Robert Curl. And there happened to be another guy named Robert Curl...

08:26 Jed Macosko: Oh no. [chuckle]

08:26 Robert Curl: Who must have gotten a very interesting phone call.

08:30 Jed Macosko: [laughter] You’ve won the Nobel Prize. [laughter]

08:32 Robert Curl: That’s happened before, by the way. [laughter]

08:35 Jed Macosko: Oh, goodness. What a story. So how did you find out about it?

08:39 Robert Curl: Well, I was having a late breakfast with my sister who was visiting us and her husband, and so the phone rang. And so I went up, and picked up the phone and the person at the other end explained that they were from ABC Radio News, and asked me how I felt about winning the Noble Prize.

08:58 Jed Macosko: [laughter] Oh no.

09:00 Robert Curl: And so, I was a little bit concerned, that it might be like, "Do you keep Prince Albert in the can?" phone call. I have been pranked before.

09:11 Jed Macosko: Yeah, I know that feeling. Wow.

09:12 Robert Curl: So, I kept trying to get more out of him and finally I decided this must be legitimate. And so that’s... I did talk briefly with them. My wife hates this and says it isn’t true at all, but I claim that I went back to breakfast and said "I just had this call, the guy said I won the Nobel Prize," and I claim that she said, "That’s nice dear."

[laughter]

09:51 Jed Macosko: Well, I could see how she would hate you repeating that story, but it might be true, she might have been engrossed in something else that was grabbing her attention at the time, that... Well, good for you. That must have been fun was it a fun trip to Sweden and did she enjoy it with you?

10:07 Robert Curl: It’s exhausting.

10:08 Jed Macosko: Was it exhausting? Okay.

10:13 Robert Curl: Nobel things... For the awardees it’s an exhausting trip.

10:15 Jed Macosko: Yeah, I can imagine they keep you busy.

10:18 Robert Curl: I actually slept well because I was always so tired by the time I got to bed, there’s always, "You gotta go here. You gotta go be there. You gotta go read this paper," lots of hand shaking, all this... And, but, Rick told me after it was all over that he couldn’t sleep. So he came back really exhausted and it only took me about four days to get over it, but I think it took Rick a little longer.

10:43 Jed Macosko: Wow.

10:45 Robert Curl: Anyway...

10:46 Jed Macosko: Well, maybe it was just too exciting for him, and I’m glad you were able to handle the stress so well.

[laughter]

10:52 Jed Macosko: That must have been really fun. Anyway, well, it is fun to hear some of your reflections on the past. Do you have things that you think about for the future of the United States chemistry program, maybe at Rice University or in the United States at large? Things maybe in the nanotechnology area, or what would you say for the future?

11:16 Robert Curl: Well, I can... Nanotechnology has, more largely through Rick’s efforts, has bloomed in the United States and around the world because of what, almost, not single handedly, but Rick he had played a major role getting in the US National Nanotechnology Initiative started in 2001. It’s... We run into a sort of a strange problem, my... I always wanted to learn something, know something different, okay? And everything moves these days towards, "Let’s do something practical," and so there’s lots of people working with some incredibly beautiful work on using nanotechnology to make things practical.

12:21 Robert Curl: The leader of it, in my opinion... The leader is a guy named Federico Capasso, who is... He’s in Harvard now in the Applied Physics program. Anyway, he’s done lot of very beautiful work, making various manipulating light using nanotechnology, laser and nano elements. But I’ve never been all that much interested in doing things practical. It was a big contrast with Rick, Rick... You know, we had this funny story along about 1995 or early 1996, we began to wonder, because the people had had samples of the various Fullerenes since 1990, and it spread across the world and thousands of people worked for the thousands of things and by the time early 1996s came along, no real high profile practical thing has been done with it, and that’s still true. And so Rick and I used to talk about," Oh, the kid doesn’t have a job yet", sort of thing, and so from then on Rick was all focused on doing something practical, and that’s what he spent the rest of his career on, his rather, unfortunately, rather short career.

14:01 Jed Macosko: Yeah, unfortunately.

14:04 Robert Curl: So.

14:05 Jed Macosko: But it’s nice to know that you could do what you did without really worrying about the practical aspect, just focusing on the things that were beautiful, fun, interesting. And that’s a good piece of advice to those who are heading out into the future of science to look for things that are just purely beautiful and fun.

14:25 Robert Curl: Well, I can’t claim that what we did was exactly directed, I think the discovery of the full range was really one of those cases of the lucky accident. Unfortunately, it also involves a prepared mind, so... Or minds. [chuckle]

14:50 Jed Macosko: That’s cool.

14:52 Robert Curl: But that was... It was not something we set out to do.

14:56 Jed Macosko: Yeah, but isn’t that how it always is? It’s just fun... It’s just literally just fun to have a conversation with you having gone to that amazing discovery and the accidents and the prepared mind. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

15:16 Robert Curl: And I never answered your question, and that’s because I was asked that question at some radio program or some TV program in Stockholm. And what do we think... What is something... A guy turned to me after I had gotten asked... Everybody else was talking and I had practically gotten sleepy, he turned to me and said, "What do you... Professor Curl, what do you see as the most important work is in this discoveries in the field of chemistry or for the next 20 years?" And of course, the answer is, "How would I know?" But I couldn’t come up with...

[chuckle]

15:51 Jed Macosko: That’s a good answer. Well, thank you so much for that wise and insightful answer, which was from 20 years ago, but it’s still true today, so thank you very much, we really appreciate you coming on the show with us. Thank you.