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UC Berkeley alumnus, Nobel laureate Robert Curl dies at 88

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Robert Curl, Nobel laureate in chemistry and UC Berkeley alumnus, died at age 88. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes.


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Lead Environment and Climate Beat Reporter

JULY 10, 2022

UC Berkeley alumnus and chemistry Nobel laureate Robert Curl died July 3 at the age of 88.

Curl was an internationally acclaimed scientist and the Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences at Rice University, but also a father of two and beloved colleague and friend of many.

“He was a brilliant man. But what was actually even more impressive, he was an extremely modest person,”  said Anatoly Kolomeisky, department chair of chemistry at Rice University. “He was a Nobel Prize winner, but if you would meet him, you wouldn’t even know that he is such a brilliant man.”

Kolomeisky recalled a time when he was applying to Rice University as an assistant professor, having just met Curl, and Curl carrying his suitcase from one appointment to another, refusing to let him carry it as a testament to Curl’s instinct to always help others.

In a testament to his modesty, Kolomeisky said Curl refused to be referred to with his doctoral title, insisting that everyone called him “Bob.”

Curl shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Rick Smalley and Harold Kroto, for the discovery of fullerenes, or carbon-60 — a discovery which was essential to the field of nanotechnology, of which Curl was an early pioneer, according to a press release by the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry. Curl’s academic prowess was not limited to chemistry, however, and he contributed to papers on economics as well, later into his career.

Beyond his contributions to science and modern technology, according to his wife Jonel Curl, he was also an avid outdoorsman.

“We were married for 66 years, so I have lots of favorite memories, hiking and camping. I have memories of being in the rockies and various other places,” Jonel said.

Jonel met Curl in 1954 when they were both campus academics and married in Dec. 1955. Curl noted in his 1996 Nobel biography that his years at Berkeley were some of his happiest because of this fact.

Curl spent time at Harvard University after earning his doctorate at UC Berkeley, before joining Rice’s chemistry faculty in 1958, where he founded the Circularized Quantum Institute and was the chair of the department of chemistry from 1992-96. According to Kolomeisky, Curl was the “soul” of the department and his legacy is “an inspiration for younger generations.”

“Everybody liked him, I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him or not put in a good word about Bob Curl,” Kolomeisky said. “He was universally praised everywhere. Everywhere.”

Contact Amber X. Chen at [email protected].

JULY 10, 2022