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Rice University professor and Nobel laureate, Robert Curl / Zuma Press. When Robert Curl was 9 years old, his parents gave him a chemistry s...

Rice University professor and Nobel laureate, Robert Curl / Zuma Press.
When Robert Curl was 9 years old, his parents gave him a chemistry set for Christmas. Though his mother was upset when nitric acid spilled on the family stove, he had found a calling.

The gift led to a 64-year career as a researcher and professor at Rice University, where in 1985 he happened to be available to help when a group of scientists performed a series of experiments using lasers to vaporize graphite, a form of carbon. They discovered that the carbon frequently rearranged itself into spheres of 60 atoms resembling an extremely small soccer ball, with a diameter of about 1 billionth of a meter.

These molecules were dubbed buckyballs. Similar molecules discovered in the same experiments were called fullerenes, because their spherical shape resembled the geodesic domes built by Buckminster Fuller. The scientists’ findings stoked a global wave of research in nanotechnology as scientists searched for other unimagined molecular structures, leading to promising new materials for solar cells and light-emitting diodes, among other things.

Dr. Curl shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Richard Smalley and Harry Kroto. A colleague recalled that Rice University wanted to find a way to thank him for landing the prize. Dr. Curl said he would appreciate a bicycle rack near his office. He died July 3 in Houston at the age of 88. His role in the discovery of buckyballs included making calculations to verify that the structure described by his colleagues was physically possible. The answer turned out to be yes.

Dr. Curl was known for his rigorous research standards. “If he agreed with you, you knew you were right,” said James Heath, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, who in 1985 was a graduate student who played a crucial role in the buckyball discovery. The findings were partly a matter of luck, Dr. Curl said. “The only credit you can claim is not ignoring your stroke of luck,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

Robert Floyd Curl Jr. was born Aug. 23, 1933, in Alice, Texas. His father was a Methodist minister who moved the family often from town to town. “I was not a particularly distinguished student as a child,” Dr. Curl wrote in a biographical note. “My grades were good but obtained more by steady work than any brilliance on my part.”

For college, he chose the Rice Institute in Houston, now known as Rice University, partly because it didn’t charge tuition at the time and partly because he was impressed by the football team. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Rice in 1954, completed a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, and did postdoctoral research at Harvard University before returning to Rice as an assistant professor in 1958.

He had no long-term plan but enjoyed mathematics and the study of molecular structures through spectroscopy. “When I look back, I’m kind of amazed at the way I just kind of wandered through life,” he said. His survivors include his wife of 66 years, Jonel Curl, two sons and three grandchildren.

Late in life, he diversified his research into economics and studied the effects of automation on the U.S. economy. He had long ago bowed out of nanotechnology, a field he saw as overcrowded. Just keeping up with the literature of nanotechnology research, he said, would be a full-time job.

In a video interview, he said winning the Nobel Prize didn’t have a huge effect on his day-to-day life. “I get lots of emails from people asking me to do things that I don’t want to do,” he said. “And I don’t do them.”