Smalley, Richard Errett (1943-) was an American physical chemist who did groundbreaking research into fullerenes, large carbon molecules having a “closed cage” shape and a hollow interior. He shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Harold Kroto and Robert Floyd Curl, Jr., for their discovery of the first fullerene, the C60, also known as the buckminsterfullerene .
Smalley determined to become a chemist while he was still in high school, in part due to the influence of his maternal aunt, Dr. Sarah Jane Rhoads, who was herself an organic chemist and one of the first women to become a full professor of chemistry in the United States. After two years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, he transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and received his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1965.
Smalley then entered the work force, taking a job in New Jersey as a research chemist with a plastics manufacturing facility owned by Shell Chemical Company. Though he had intended to stay with Shell only about two years, the Vietnam War was escalating and he postponed his plans to enter graduate school. Instead, he moved up the ranks at Shell for four years under an industrial deferment from the draft, then began his master's program, at Princeton University in 1969, where he focused on condensed matter spectroscopy. He earned his master's degree in chemistry in 1971 and his Ph.D. degree in 1973.
As part of his postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, Smalley designed a research project that led to a groundbreaking new development in chemical physics. He and his colleagues invented supersonic beam laser spectroscopy, a powerful technique that cooled gases close to absolute zero so that rotating molecules would “freeze,” making them easier to study. This technique gave scientists, for the first time, the ability to measure and even create small atom clusters, thus opening up vast new possibilities in the science of molecular chemistry.