Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley’s Faith Journey
A recent list of the 100 most important “scientific discoveries that changed the world” lists Rick Smalley’s discovery of Buckyballs (English, 2014, p. 13). But who was this man? Richard (Rick) Smalley (June 6, 1943-October 28, 2005) was Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy at Rice University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 (along with Sir Harry Kroto and Robert Curl) for the discovery and research on a new allotrope (form) of carbon. He called this unique soccerball-shaped molecule buckminsterfullerene, nicknamed buckyballs. Soon a more comprehensive category called fullerenes was proposed to include nanotubes.
Called a “rock star in technology circles,” Smalley achieved several major breakthroughs in his field of nanotechnology (Feder, 2005). His research had, and has, a critical role in the development of cell phones, computers and other electronics because of the high tensile strength of nanotubes (English, 2014, p. 13). Many researchers even date the dawn of modern nanotechnology to Dr. Smalley’s buckyball discovery. Upon his death in 2005, the American Senate even passed a resolution to honour Dr. Smalley, calling him the “Father of Nanotechnology.”
Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley is one of many scientists who have rejected agnosticism partly as a result of rejecting evolutionism. His Christian walk was heavily influenced by the modern evidence for the intelligent design of life and the universe. His life and accomplishments reveal a dedicated scientist who, although he died of cancer shortly after his conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, has left us a remarkable testimony to his faith.
His Scientific Research
In 1985, Dr. Smalley and British colleague, Sir Harold Kroto, were experimenting with vaporizing graphite by the use of lasers. When they analyzed their results, they discovered a large number of exceptionally stable complex carbon molecules that their research showed consisted of 60 atoms. To help determine the shape of this strange molecule, Dr. Smalley built paper models in his kitchen, concluding that the atoms must be arranged in a soccer ball-like structure containing 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. The structure was the most spherically-shaped molecule ever discovered. Because the shape reminded him of the geodesic dome invented by famed architect Buckminster Fuller, he named the molecule buckminsterfullerenes.
The new carbon form shocked a very skeptical scientific world that had known only the graphite and diamond carbon allotropes. It also ignited a worldwide race to understand the traits of this very unique and unexpected molecule. Eventually, cylindrical tubes known as carbon nanotubes and numerous other variants were added to what is now called the fullerene family of molecules.
Depending on their structure, fullerenes exhibit a variety of technologically important electrical, chemical, and strength characteristics. Buckyball’s round shape was ideally suited to slide past other materials and, for this reason, had an important lubricating potential. Because buckyballs are hollow, small compounds could easily fit inside. The possibility that they could serve as molecular cages for storing, or transporting, other chemicals is an important potential use now being explored. Drugs could be administered molecularly—or more importantly, individual radioactive molecules could be transported in buckyballs. Scientists now are developing loaded buckyballs to attack cancer and other diseases.
Professor Smalley earned a B.S. from the University of Michigan, an M.A. and Ph.D. at Princeton, and did his post-doctoral work at the University of Chicago. His many awards include eight honorary doctorates and election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
At a young age he learned about Darwinism from his mother, a woman who “fell in love with science” as a young adult (Smalley, 1996, p. 1). Skeptical of religion most of his life, Dr. Smalley became a Christian only in his last years, partly due to his intensive study of intelligent design. His pastor, Ben Young, wrote that Dr. Smalley “took that same humble, analytical, and tenacious (also known as stubborn) mind he’d used to explore every scientific aspect of the universe he could—and applied it to a ‘re-investigation of Christianity’ (his words) and what made [Christianity] … so powerful” (Young, 2006, p. 122).
As a scientist, Dr. Smalley “was searching for answers—ones that made scientific sense” (Young, 2006, p. 118). At first he could not accept the idea that the Bible was the word of God and, as is true of many scientific-minded people, struggled with the “is science compatible with Christianity?” question (Young, 2006, p. 119). An important step in his spiritual path was an Intelligent Design lecture presented at his university (Young, 2005, p. 1).
Dr. Smalley “was a stickler for scientific credibility and integrity,” and was soon filled “with questions about biological evolution … [and] Bible passages that he presumed were in conflict with science … Rick loved to research frontiers of knowledge that few before him had ever probed. The thrill of Rick’s life was to explore” science (Young, 2006, p. 120). When he finally agreed to look into evolution in detail, his reaction to what he was learning was anger. His widow wrote that she remembers “him pacing the bedroom floor in anger saying evolution was bad science. Rick hated bad science worse than anything else. He said if he conducted his research the way that they [evolutionists] did, he would never be respected in the scientific community. He was angry too that men and women chose not to go into the sciences because of the cold, sterile picture that evolution paints of life.” (Wainerdi, 2010)
In the end, Smalley’s extensive research convinced him that macro-evolution never occurred, could never have occurred, and that this conclusion was the result of scientific fact, not religion. He concluded that the universe “was built for life” and, although “we know that all life is intimately related … it is not at all clear that … evolution could have happened” (quoted in Young, 2006, pp. 119-120).
Smalley at first accepted theistic evolution, but as he studied the issue in detail he became an outspoken anti-Darwinist. He once delivered an anti-Darwinist address at Tuskegee University’s 79th Annual Scholarship Convocation/Parents’ Recognition Program and received a standing ovation. Smalley wrote that the “last year of his life was his most thrilling as a scientist” (Smalley, 2005a). He learned that he did not need to “throw his mind away when reading the Bible,” but concluded that the “Bible made him an even better scientist, and a more inspiring science educator” (Young, 2005, p. 123). It was during his last year of life that he “made the transition from simply believing in God as a creator—or a force—to really trusting him: trusting Christ to rule his life. Like C.S. Lewis and other intellectuals who walked the same path as Rick” (Young, 2006, p. 123). However, it was the impression of his widow, that Dr. Smalley became a convinced anti-Darwinist so quickly that he never had an occasion to confront the issue of age of the earth issue.
The Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology
In 1993, Professor Smalley envisioned the first nanotechnology center in the world, a reality which eventually encompassed 151 faculty members in 21 departments with over 500 students researching nanotechnology in a wide variety of societal and scientific arenas. In 2015 the Smalley-Curl Institute was created from the merger of the Richard E. Smalley Institute and the Rice Quantum Institute. Research at SCI encompasses advanced materials, quantum magnetism, plasmonics and photonics among other things, and all aspects of nanoscience and nanotechology.
The overwhelming evidence for design in nature often has been a major factor in convincing people of God’s existence—a creation demands a creator. Our new knowledge of the finely-tuned universe, the design and complexity of the cell, and all life, has resulted in more evidence for a divine creator than ever before in history. Dr. Smalley is only one of thousands of scientists whose lives were changed as a result of understanding this evidence and its implications for the existence of a divine Creator (Sharp and Bergman, 2008). When Smalley realized macro-evolution as science was fatally flawed, he intended to actively challenge the evolution establishment, but cancer tragically took his life before he was able to achieve this goal (Wainerdi, 2010).
Dr. Smalley’s colleague Harry Kroto recently died (1939-2016) and his colleague Robert Curl published an obituary in Nature (May 26 p. 470). It is seldom that worldview is mentioned in obituaries in Nature, but this one did, possibly because of the contrast between the views of Kroto and Smalley. Thus Robert Curl wrote: “Harry was strongly opinionated. He did not profess modesty, and as an atheist, he would often engage his religious acquaintances in fierce debate.” One wonders if Drs. Kroto and Smalley had a chance to share their views after their initial collaboration.
Author Jerry Bergman thanks Mrs. Deborah [Smalley] Wainerdi; Dr. Smalley’s Pastor, Ben Young; Mrs. Toni Richmond, and Professor James Tour for their interviews and permission to quote from unpublished material.
English, Bridget. 2014. 100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Publication.
Feder, Barnaby J. 2005. “Richard E. Smalley, 62, Dies; Chemistry Nobel Winner.” New York Times October 29.
Smalley, Richard. 1996. “Richard E. Smalley Autobiography.” Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Foundation
Sharp, D. and J. Bergman (editors) 2008. Persuaded by the Evidence. Green Forest, AK: Master Books.
Young, Ben (editor). 2005. Celebrating the life of Richard Smalley. Transcript of the eulogy given at the second Baptist Church, Houston, TX. November 2, 2005.
Young, Ben. 2006. Why Mike’s Not a Christian; Honest Questions About Evolution, Relativism, Hypocrisy, and More. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers.
Wainerdi, Debbie. 2010. E-mail dated April 2, 2010.
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