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Spring 2000

Speed Demon
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Working in the realm of the infinitesimally small, chemist Jim Heath's molecular-based computers will be billions of times more efficient than anything we've ever imagined, holding the promise of benefits that will affect all our lives
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By Gary Taubes
Photography by John Eder

If there was an epiphany in the career of UCLA chemist Jim Heath, a moment of pure revelation, it struck in September 1984, on his first day as a graduate student in the laboratory of a Rice University chemist and future Nobel laureate named Rick Smalley. As an undergraduate, Heath had studied chemistry at Baylor but had gone that route mostly because a research job in a chem lab would put spending money in his pocket. It was not, at that time, what one might term a divine calling.

Then he went on to Rice and to Smalley's lab, showing up on Day One to find himself confronted by a machine technically called a "laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus" and which Heath describes more simply as "this huge, two-story contraption that had all sorts of lasers around it and no one to run it." Smalley, who designed the device (which was capable of vaporizing materials to study their constituent atoms or molecules), instructed Heath in the fine points of its operation and together they began to collect data. Late in the evening, Smalley went home to bed and Heath stayed behind, mesmerized by the machine and its capabilities. "At three in the morning," he recalls, "I had to call Smalley, wake him up and ask him how to turn the machine off. I knew," he says with a laugh, "I had found the right place to be."

It was almost exactly one year later that the laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus, with Heath at the controls, began creating the 60-carbon atom molecule known as C60 or, more popularly, buckyballs (after R. Buckminster Fuller, the American architect whose geodesic dome designs have a structure similar to that atom). The creation and discovery, which opened an entirely new branch of chemistry, led to the Nobel Prize in 1996 for Smalley and the other two senior collaborators, Bob Curl of Rice and Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex in England. It also sealed Heath's reputation as a graduate student and scientist of great promise. Such recognition might have induced him to devote his life to the study of this remarkable family of carbon molecules. But that wasn't Heath's style.

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