Robert F. Curl Jr.


Interview, June 2005

Interview with Professor Robert F. Curl Jr. by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005.

Professor Curl talks about his interest in chemistry as a child; the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize (2:31); problems with patenting discoveries (7:20); memories from the Nobel Week (8:59); and his working life after the Nobel Prize (12:54).

Interview transcript

Thank you Professor for coming to this interview with us. Professor Curl, I believe I read something about you, that you got your first chemistry box when you were quite a small child?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: That’s right.

Was that how it all started?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: Yes, it really is, I got this chemistry set I think it was for Christmas it’s a little hard to remember for sure. I had a little room over the garage that I could play with it in and essentially what I did was all of the little experiments that they suggested in the booklet that came with it and I hadn’t exhausted possibility for mixing up chemicals so I tried mixing every possible combination to see what happened. And I became fascinated with chemistry and decided essentially then to become a chemist.

You didn’t scare your parents, did anything that sort of upset them?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: I did upset my mother on one occasion, this was much later when I was in high school, I was doing some experiment on her stove and boiled over some nitric acid and ate the enamel off the stove and did bother her quite a bit. In fact, she talked about it for years.

Is that something, if you have children in your family or grandchildren or so on, do you encourage that kind of you know experimenting and being so curious?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: I encouraged … I’m beginning to despair because neither one of my two sons who have gone on to be quite, you know, they’re adults and actually middle aged now and been quite successful, are not at all interested in that sort of thing. I would buy a little kit to do electronics or something and they would not be very interested doing any of the little experiments.

Not even after you got a Nobel Prize?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: They were of course adult by that time. My grandchildren have not been particularly interested so far. I have one yet coming that’s not yet five that may turn out to might be interested in doing something but no, it hadn’t happened.

Did you think that there was a possibility for you to get the prize when you discovered what you discovered together with your colleagues and put them together and started to work together?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: No, I always have judged the interest in things on the attitude of organic chemists. They’re, in the United States at least, the organic chemists are the ones who create the atmosphere for chemistry. And they … I remember in the years following doing this experiment that I would go and give a talk about the work that we had done on carbonate some place and I’d give this talk and people would be interested. They would inevitably at the end of the talk, there would be some organic chemists who would raise his hand and say can I see a sample of this material? And then I would have to explain that no we were only talking about a few thousands molecules in a big machine and that we’ve never actually seen a large sample and they would immediately lose interest.

… I couldn’t conceive that there would be a prize if the organic chemists were not interested in it …

And so I couldn’t conceive that there would be a prize if the organic chemists were not interested in it. And what changed things was the work of Wolfgang Krätschmer and Donald Huffman who made and developed a method for making microscopic samples of these materials. Then the organic chemists could get their hands on it and it was at that point that I thought there might be a prize for either them or us.

And it was you. But you say also that it was not just you and your two colleagues who had worked together on this.

Robert F. Curl Jr.: No, there were actually a number of graduate students, at least three who were involved, you know, in the very initial work. The two that get most of the credit, that we brought to Stockholm, and who were on the original paper, Sean O’Brian and Jim Heath, were, you know, certainly they have … and we’ve acknowledged and very much /- – -/ their contributions. There was another graduate student Yuan Liu who’s not really gotten the credit that she deserves. What happened was that she was married and her husband lived in San Francisco and she was a graduate student in Houston and just at the time that the most crucial experiments were being done she had a long schedule trip to go visit her husband and so she was not there when these crucial experiments were done and when the paper was written. But she was actually involved from the very beginning and then I had a student Qing-Ling Zhang who was around but really got involved with this little after the beginning.

So I suppose that’s how it goes in these fields, that you have … either you can be sort of secretive about it and just work very lonely or you include lots of people and of course then you know you might not all be mentioned when the prize is given.

Robert F. Curl Jr.: The prize is limited to three individuals so that’s a difficulty because there are many more people than three individuals that contribute. Science is a very social occupation. The image of the scientist is the mad fantasist who lives on top of a mountain top and only has his faithful servant Igor to help him is a complete myth. Has nothing to do with the way science is actually done. In fact, I claim that the people who really work in solitary are the humanists, they go to the library and closes themselves with the books and sit there and try to write their books and their papers and have far less human contact than the daily activities of their profession than scientists do.

I was thinking now and when patent is becoming or has been but is becoming more and more important and sometimes it also become a big quarrel between the scientist and maybe the university or the company that you’re working for, when you do your major discovery, how can one get around that or has it badly influenced the social aspect of research do you think?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: I don’t know that it in terms of academic research I don’t know that it has. For one thing, certainly in the past, most university professors were not working in things that were immediately patentable. That’s changing, people are more interested in doing things that are of practical importance. In my university, occasionally we get into an interesting paradox because by university regulation the PhD final oral examination is public, it has to be publicly announced and anyone can come and for some of us, some of the professors who are working with very commercially interesting things they find themselves in a really serious bind.

When you went to Stockholm to receive the prize is there any memories from that …

Robert F. Curl Jr.: It’s sort of a blur. It’s a very active week, it tends to go by almost in a blur. I remember lots and lots of pleasant things, everybody was extremely nice, it was wonderful to be the centre of attention and simultaneously exhausting. The things that I remember most vividly were when I gave a talk about the work, okay, and I remember being relaxed even though this was being televised, and feeling very … quite comfortable with giving an hour long talk that was being televised to thousands of people at least.

… I became increasingly nervous, in spite of the fact that I had very little to actually do …

Then when they had the ceremony and I was supposed to go up and receive the prize from the King, before that happened, this is maybe an old familiar story, but before that happened I became increasingly nervous, in spite of the fact that I had very little to actually do. And almost nothing to say except thank you. You know I recall being extremely nervous in that regard and managed to get through it. I don’t know the origins of such nervousness, whether it I was going to drop it or I would fall down on the way or whatever.

So that was one memory and the other memory I had was that there was a television programme that was moderated by Jonathan Mann who’s at CNN, and I was sitting there, with all the lawyers sitting there, and the conversation was sort of bouncing around and it hadn’t bounced toward me and I hadn’t felt motivated to say much so I was sort of sitting there like dumb frankly. And with out of the blue without any indication this was going to happen Jonathan Mann turns to me and says “What do you think will be the most significant developments in your field over the next 20 years?” And the response that over the course of time became obvious to me is that, would be me say “Well, how would I know!” They wouldn’t miss if I knew. But anyway I really fumbled a response to that question yea and that sort of haunted me for a quite a while after it was over, but …

You did say after having received this award that people ask you all sorts of questions and you sort of supposed to know all the answers to it, all different issues and what goes on with humankind?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: You get used to saying I don’t know. I hated that because you know you’re trained to avoid ignorance to try to know things and so to constantly have to say I don’t know is, you know, it’s hard, it takes a while to get used to that.

It’s very honest though isn’t it to be able to say that.

Robert F. Curl Jr.: It’s certainly superior than making something up.

Has it changed your working life though, this award?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: Yes, it changed it both positive and negative ways. The positive way has been that it’s been easier to get money and co-workers I think. The negative way is that you get a lot of e-mails of course not a whole lot but enough to be significant of email correspondence about things that you would really not particularly want get involved with. Things like getting messages from students.

There are two kinds of messages from students, the one kind is the one where the student really seems to be genuinely interested and has some question that shows that they’ve actually thought about something and then there’s the student who has a homework assignment and feels that this would be a good way to get help on their assignment. And so the first kind I enjoy, the second kind you know I don’t want to feel caught on a crux because you don’t want to discourage any serious student, but you don’t see how it actually helps their development for you to supply them with answers to their assignment, so.

Any specific … do you think that scientists of your calibre, those who have received the award from the Nobel Foundation, have any specific responsibilities?

Robert F. Curl Jr.: I don’t think we have any more responsibility than the average citizen has, we don’t, you know, we haven’t become brilliant overnight. Getting the Nobel Prize did not increase our intelligence, let’s put it that way. And it certainly didn’t make us experts in all areas. So, it does give you a certain ability to get people to listen. And so, therefore you have a responsibility as any citizen would have if you feel that there is something you have to say that people really need to listen to, then you should definitely go ahead and say it and try to do what you can to either improve things or try and help overt disaster.

Thank you very much Professor, I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

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