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From scepticism to faith in Christ ‘a Nobel Laureate’s journey

May 2011

From scepticism to faith in Christ — a Nobel Laureate’s journey

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’. 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. Sceptical 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 in 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.’
Death blow

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’.
    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 realised 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

References and notes:

1. Nanotech Pioneer, Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, 28 October 2005,
2. Feder, B., ‘Richard E. Smalley, 62, dies; Chemistry Nobel winner’, New York Times, 29 October 2005.
3. 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.
4. Smalley, R., autobiography, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 1996. Accessed at on 26 October 2010.
5. Young, B., with Fuselier, S., Why Mike’s not a Christian: Honest questions about evolution, relativism, hypocrisy, and more, Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, 2006.
6. Wainerdi, Debbie (Smalley), Email 2 April 2010.
7. Ref. 4, p. 123.
8. Young, B., (ed.), Celebrating the life of Richard Smalley, transcript of eulogy given Houston, TX 2 November 2005.
9. ‘Scholarship convocation speaker challenges scholars to serve the greater good’, Tuskegee University, p. 1, 3 October 2004,
10. Smalley, R., press release, concerning PA judge’s ruling against ID, 2005.
11. Ref. 7, p. 123.
Jerry Bergman
    This article is used by permission of Creation Ministries International (