The death of Richard Smalley is, of course, deeply mourned by anyone who follows nanotechnology or anyone who met the extraordinary chemist. He was one of those rare scientists, especially rare for chemists, who captured the imagination of a wider audience. He was, as Robert Gower was quoted as saying in the obit in the New York Times, “a rock star in technology.”
To me, Smalley captured what is cool about nanotech. As a journalist who began covering nanotech in the mid-1990s, I particularly admired Smalley for his almost unique combination of a deep knowledge of chemistry and a grand vision for its potential. He famously fought against the hype that has always followed nanotech, grounding his arguments in an understanding and instinct for what is possible in chemistry – and what isn’t. I will never forget spending several hours interviewing him in his large office at Rice, listening as he explained the inner workings and interactions of molecules. I remember sitting there, nearly speechless for several hours, struggling to keep up with his “lecture.” It was as if his imagination existed in this molecular world. And yet Smalley was bold enough to advance an ambitious vision for the potential of nanotech, and even more important, to tirelessly argue that this emerging new field should focus its powers and attention on solving really important problems. Energy, of course, was at the top of his list.
One of the first articles that I wrote for Technology Review on nanotech was titled “Will the Real Nanotech Please Stand Up?” It began with a scene in which Smalley was delivering a lecture to a packed ballroom at the Boston Marriott on “new devices and materials from carbon.” From an interview after his talk, I quoted him: “The dream is to build with that level of finesse, to make it perfect down to the last atom.”
In the next few days, I expect I will post more thoughts about Richard Smalley. The lessons he taught us about nanotechnology are vitally important to keep in mind.