From skepticism to faith in Christ: a Nobel Laureate’s journey
[Disclaimer: We have learned that Dr Smalley publically identified himself as an old-age creationist in remarks he made at the 2005 Hope College Alumni banquet: “God did create the universe about 13.7 billion years ago, and of necessity has involved Himself with His creation ever since.”—Ed.]
Richard (Rick) Errett Smalley (1943–2005), M.A., Ph.D. (Princeton), was the Hackerman Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy at Rice University.1 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of (and his research on) a totally new allotrope (form) of carbon. This comprised unique soccerball-shaped molecules he named buckminsterfullerenes, nicknamed buckyballs—see box below. Although he died of cancer shortly after his conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, he has left us a remarkable testimony to his faith.
Rick Smalley was called a ‘rock star’ in technology circles. He made several major breakthroughs in his field of nanotechnology research.2 Many researchers even date the dawn of the modern nanotechnology field to Dr Smalley’s buckyball discovery. Professor Smalley’s many awards, besides a Nobel Prize, include eight honorary doctor of science degrees, including one from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.3
He literally learned about Darwinism at his mother’s knee, a woman who “fell in love with science” as a young adult.4 Smalley spent hours with his mother reading and doing science projects such as collecting and examining single-celled organisms from a local pond with a microscope. 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.
As a scientist Dr Smalley was searching for answers that made scientific sense. He at first could not accept the idea that the Bible was the word of God and struggled with the question of whether science was compatible with Christianity.5 An important step in his spiritual path was an intelligent design lecture presented at his university. He was “a stickler for scientific credibility and integrity” and filled “with questions about biological evolution, or about Bible passages that he presumed were in conflict with science … ”.4 When he finally agreed to look into evolution in detail his reaction to what he was learning was anger. His wife (a biologist, who had to come to terms with the same issues) wrote:
“I remember 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 did, he would never be respected in the scientific community.”6
Smalley at first accepted theistic evolution, but as he studied the issue in detail he became an outspoken anti-Darwinist. In 2004 he delivered an anti-Darwinist address at Tuskegee University’s 79th Annual Scholarship Convocation/Parents’ Recognition Program and received a standing ovation. In it he said:
“The burden of proof is on those who don’t believe that ‘Genesis’ was right, and there was a creation, and that the Creator is still involved. … [The fact is] this planet was built specifically for us. Working on this planet is an absolute moral code. … Let’s go out and do what we were put on Earth to do.”
He also claimed that Darwinian evolution had been given its death blow due to the advance of genetics and cell-biology, and that it was now clear that biological evolution could not have occurred.
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.”7 His pastor, Ben Young, concluded that Dr. Smalley was “born again headfirst”, his heart caught up later!8 On the subjects of evolution versus creationism and Darwinism versus the Bible he concluded that “Genesis was right”.9
When Smalley realized macro-evolution as science was fatally flawed, he intended to openly challenge the evolution establishment, but cancer took his life before he was able to achieve this goal.5
Dr Smalley wrote that the last year of his life was his most thrilling as a scientist. 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”.10,11
In 1985 Dr Smalley and a colleague Dr Kroto were experimenting with vaporizing graphite by the use of lasers. When they analyzed their results, they discovered a large number of exceptionally stable carbon molecules that consisted of 60 atoms. To help determine the shape 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 a buckminsterfullerene.
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. Buckyballs, being round, were ideally formed to slide past other materials and, for this reason, had important lubricating potential. The possibility that they could serve as molecular cages for storing or transporting other chemicals inside their hollow centres is another important potential use now being researched. Drugs could be administered molecularly—even individual radioactive molecules could be transported in buckyballs, to attack cancer, for instance.
References and notes
- Nanotech Pioneer, Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley dead at 62, 28 October 2005, www.media.rice.edu/media. Return to text.
- Feder, B., Richard E. Smalley, 62, dies; Chemistry Nobel Winner, New York Times 29 October 2005. Return to text.
- The oldest technological university in the English-speaking world, Rensselaer regularly ranks in the top 50 in the US for academic prowess and the top 50 worldwide for technology. Return to text.
- Smalley, R., Autobiography, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 1996. Accessed at nobelprize.org on 26 October 2010. Return to text.
- Young, B., with Fuselier, S., Why Mike’s Not a Christian; Honest Questions About Evolution, Relativism, Hypocrisy, and More, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 2006. Return to text.
- Wainerdi, Debbie (Smalley), Email 2 April 2010. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 123. Return to text.
- Young, B., (ed.), Celebrating the life of Richard Smalley, transcript of eulogy given Houston, TX 2 November 2005. Return to text.
- Scholarship Convocation Speaker Challenges Scholars to Serve the Greater Good, Tuskegee University, p. 1, 3 October 2004, www.tuskegee.edu. Return to text.
- Smalley, R., Press release, concerning PA Judge’s ruling against ID, 2005. Return to text.
- Ref. 7, p. 123. Return to text.