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Cover Story

October 9, 2006
Volume 84, Number 41

About The Cover

Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Image Collection

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Bethany Halford

Otherworldly. That was photographer Mark Thiessen's underlying concept for the photo on the cover of the Oct. 9 issue of C&EN. Thiessen shot this picture of Rick Smalley, along with several other otherworldly images, for "Nano's Big Future," an article in the June 2006 issue of National Geographic.

Faced with the impossible task of taking photographs at the nanoscale, Thiessen decided to realize the nanoworld's alien landscape—where elements morph into unfamiliar versions of themselves???on the human scale.

To capture Smalley, a giant of nanotechnology, the National Geographic photographer wanted to transpose familiar concepts of size. He took most photographers' preferred accessory for the Rice University professor—a buckyball—and supersized it. In the shadow of a 20-foot metal fullerene, Smalley comes down to the molecular scale, so to speak.

The luminous rope, a nod to the Nobel Laureate's energy crusade, is a side-glow fiber optic cable interfaced with a strobe light via a funnel. It was the photo's only light source other than the dusk sky.

Thiessen chose the backdrop of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats to attain the aura of otherworldliness. The flatland's salt-crusted surface normally glows white, but Thiessen and his crew found about an inch of water upon their arrival. It turned out to be the shoot's greatest hardship, requiring an elaborate setup of elevated extension cords to prevent electrocution. The water left salty films on everything it touched. It corroded Thiessen's tripod.

The photo shoot had originally been scheduled for May 2005, but had to be rescheduled for June when Smalley fell ill. Still, it was an appointment he was determined to keep, traveling from Houston to Wendover, Utah, with his bride, Debbie, just four days after their wedding. "We were basically their honeymoon," Thiessen jokes.

As a staff photographer for National Geographic for nearly a decade, Thiessen has captured many prestigious subjects on film. Even so, Smalley stood out. "He could look right through you," Thiessen says. "I regret that he wasn't around to see the photo in the magazine."


The World According To Rick
Richard Smalley left his mark on science by laying the foundation for nanotechnology as we know it, then he tried to save the world

Human Element
Richard The Lionheart

The story behind the cover photo

Interactive Photo Gallery: Rick Smalley's friends and colleagues

Editor's Page: Celebrating Rick Smalley

Chemical & Engineering News
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