The University of Chicago News Office
Oct. 8, 1996 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

Chemistry Nobel laureate Richard Smalley

University of Chicago Research Associate 1973-76; honorary degree 1995

Richard Smalley, who shares the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other scientists for their discovery of molecules commonly known as “Buckeyballs,” developed an important experimental technique he used in his Nobel prize-winning research while he was a Research Associate at the University of Chicago. From 1973 to 1976 he worked under the direction of Donald Levy, the Ralph & Mary Otis Isham Professor in Chemistry at the University of Chicago. Smalley was also awarded an honorary degree from the University of Chicago in 1995.

“He would have been my favorite choice if they had let me pick it,” said Levy. “Buckminsterfullerene, or C60, was discovered by accident, but it was an accident that could have only taken place in Rick’s lab, because he developed the experimental means to make it and he also developed the experimental means to make measurements of it. And then of course he was smart enough to figure out what the experiment meant after he did it.”

Levy explained that he and Smalley together (along with Leonard Wharton, then a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago) pioneered one of the experimental techniques Smalley used to discover Buckeyballs, a technique known as “supersonic jet spectroscopy,” while Smalley was at the University of Chicago. The technique, which allows chemists to study the structure of molecules, involves cooling a gas by rapidly expanding it into a vacuum, thereby “freezing” the motion of the molecules and making them much easier to study.

Smalley’s research in physical chemistry established the field of cluster science. Most of the techniques used in cluster science–the study of aggregates of tens to hundreds of atoms or molecules–had their origins in Smalley’s laboratory. His most spectacular and well-known discovery, that of C60 (Buckminsterfullerene, popularly known as Buckyball), was the first of a new family of carbon compounds.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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