Two of nature’s weirder phenomena on Wednesday garnered Nobel prizes in science for their discoverers.
The chemistry prize went for the discovery of “buckyballs,” the symmetrical carbon molecules that look like tiny soccer balls. The physics prize was awarded to researchers who found that liquid helium can flow without friction at superlow temperatures.
Richard E. Smalley, 53, and Robert F. Curl Jr., 63, both chemists at Rice University in Houston, shared the chemistry prize with Harold W. Kroto, 57, of Sussex University in England.
Their discovery of a new form of carbon in the 1980s was named after architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller because of his tireless promotion of geodesic domes, which the carbon molecules resemble. The newly found form of carbon is also sometimes called “fullerenes.”
Smalley’s path toward finding buckyballs began at the University of Chicago, where he was part of a group of chemists who developed a new technique for examining molecules.
Scientists traditionally determine the makeup of molecules by shining light on them and measuring how different elements of the molecules absorb different wavelengths or colors of light. But this can be difficult with complex molecules, in which many different colors are absorbed by lots of different atoms.
In the 1970s, University of Chicago scientists worked out a way to cool a gaseous mix of molecules and reduce their ability to absorb light, making it much easier to measure the light they do absorb, said Don Levy, a University of Chicago chemistry professor who worked on the project with Smalley.
“Our technique only works with molecules that are presented as a gas,” Levy said.
Later Smalley and his colleagues at Rice University devised another important technology that uses lasers to change metal or carbon into gases, thus rendering them available for analysis. This process is called laser ablation.
“His work on laser ablation alone was worthy of a prize, even apart from the discovery of buckyballs,” Levy said.
Buckyballs have grabbed far more public attention than most scientific discoveries, having been featured in cover stories in popular newsmagazines as well as journals such as Science.
Buckyballs have several unusual physical properties, such as being extremely strong and conductive of electricity, which suggest great potential for practical application, Levy said.
While scientists at Rice University discovered the first buckyballs and how to make them, a group of Arizona researchers later found a way to make them in quantities large enough to be easily studied.
The prize in physics honors David M. Lee, 65, and Robert C. Richardson, 59, of Cornell University and Douglas C. Osheroff, 51, of Stanford University for their discovery that at ultralow temperatures, an isotope of liquid helium is a frictionless superfluid.