Top Scientist Blends Science & Faith; Chemistry & God!
Jim Tour wanted to be a trooper. But now he’s a leading scientist at Rice, building on groundbreaking work of nanotechnology pioneer Rick Smalley.
As a teen pumping gas on a highway north of New York City, Jim Tour dreamed of becoming a state trooper. It beat filling tanks. The notion of Tour as a highway cop is almost laughably discordant with present-day reality. Three decades later, the trim, intense, 50-year-old Tour has established himself as one of the leading, if not premier, scientists at Rice University.
And he’s learned to dream big.
Four years after Nobel laureate Rick Smalley’s untimely death, it is the prolific Tour who as much as anyone has carried on Smalley’s groundbreaking legacy in the science of nanotechnology. Confirmation came last month when, among the more than 720,000 scientists who authored chemistry papers in academic journals during the last decade, Tour found himself among the 10 most-cited authors in the world. This means the 135 papers he wrote during the last decade had one of the 10 highest rates at which other scientists “cited” them in the references of subsequent research papers. And small wonder. Tour’s work spans an incredible breadth, from building tiny cars and trucks out of molecules, to making computer memory from graphite, building tiny missiles that carry drugs to tumors and trying to cure radiation sickness.
“He is just incredibly creative as a chemist,” said Wade Adams, director of Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. “He makes molecules dance.”
But it’s not all about the chemistry. Though Tour is clearly passionate about chemistry, he is passionate about God. In a world that increasingly associates scientists with atheism or agnosticism, Tour derives his inspiration from deep faith. He wakes up each morning at 3:30 a.m., he says, to spend his first two hours with his Bible. “I read the Bible from Genesis Chapter 1 to Revelation Chapter 22, and when I’m done I start again,” Tour said. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. There is this amazing richness. I take a passage and I say, ‘Lord speak to me.’ And then it just comes alive.”
Attracted to law enforcement but ineligible to attend New York’s state police academy because of color blindness, Tour then considered forensic science. But his dad suggested he stick to basic chemistry to keep his options open. By the time he got to Syracuse University, Tour was hooked, especially on organic chemistry, the chemistry of carbon and life. “I just loved organic chemistry,” Tour said. “I would just spend hours and hours on Friday nights. I’d find an empty classroom and sit there and just write chemical structures and dream up syntheses of how I could build them. I understand that’s not the normal reaction to organic chemistry.”
In time Tour became a fine organic chemist, synthesizing molecules for vaccines and other applications, and joining the faculty at the University of South Carolina.
By 1998 he had a breakthrough and an epiphany while tinkering in the field of molecular electronics, which seeks to build electronic components from the ground up with molecules — rather than from the top down with silicon. If fully realized, because of the small size of molecules, the field of molecular electronics has the potential to revolutionize computer technology.
Working with electrical engineer Mark Reed, Tour created the first reversible electronic switch out of molecules, a stunning achievement that landed him in the journal Science and caught the attention of Rick Smalley. The epiphany came when Tour realized he could transcend organic chemistry by turning his talents at synthesizing complex molecules toward materials science. After offers and counter-offers, Tour ended up at Rice in a brand-new building fully devoted to nanotechnology, one of the country’s first on an academic campus. Sitting in his immaculate office, it’s clear that one of Tour’s strengths is organization as he manages multiple research projects. His desk? Clear. His conference table? Clear.
Tour also seems to derive motivation from naysayers.
During the last few years he has garnered widespread acclaim for his nanocars, literally molecules that look and move like cars. “At first people laughed at us, saying it wasn’t really a car because it didn’t have a motor,” he said. “So we made a motorized car, and they laughed because it was so slow.”
The first nanocar motor turned over just 1.8 times a minute. A recent version makes 3 million revolutions per second.
“So now we’ve got one that rotates faster than you could ever build a macroscopic car,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
Tour credits his success, in part, to hard work. Six days a week, Tour says, he leaves for his office at 6 a.m., setting aside Sundays. Breakfast and lunch, most days, is dried dates and nuts. So meals take about a minute. After a midday break for 20 minutes at Rice’s on-campus chapel, it’s back to work until he leaves for home around 6 p.m.
He also cites his students’ contributions to his success. With a budget of $1.25 million annually from the Army, Navy and industrial grants, Tour has about two dozen graduate and postdoctoral students working under him.
“Besides his extraordinary abilities as an instructor, he is also a mentor of leaders,” said Jorge Seminario, an engineering professor at Texas A&M University who studied under Tour at South Carolina. “In every step of his leadership, he is teaching his associates and students how to be organized and look for the success of the project.”
And, finally, Tour credits his success to his faith. When he speaks about this, Tour’s angular features sharpen. He closes his eyes. His voice becomes more emotive. “I believe, fundamentally, that God creates us all,” he said. Colleagues say that Tour, a Messianic Jew who attends West University Baptist Church, does not wear his religion on his sleeve, but that he will bring it up if asked. And if asked, he does not hold back. As part of those views, Tour says he neither understands nor accepts the notion of macroevolution, that new species evolve on their own.
“I’ve asked people to explain it to me, and I still don’t understand it,” he said. “I hear their explanations and I don’t understand it. I understand better than most people how molecules come together, what they can and cannot do. … And I don’t understand how macroevolution occurs.”
Tour does not espouse “intelligent design,” which holds that certain features of living things are best explained by God, but he says not accepting macroevolution has caused problems for him in academia.
“When appointments are not made, when fellowships are not granted on this basis, that hurts,” he said. “I’m willing to stand up and say I don’t see any clothes on that emperor. I’m being very open. That bothers a lot of people. I don’t know why. I’m telling you it’s just been in the recent past. I’ve been a professor now for more than 20 years. I never saw it before.”
The Rice administration has remained steadfast behind Tour. And some of his students, such as Ashley Leonard, who just earned her Ph.D., say Tour’s faith helps make him a more complete mentor. “I always felt his doors were open to us,” she said. “I’m sure his faith created some of that hospitality there.”
It’s his faith that also has probably allowed Tour to take chances as a researcher, to not be afraid to fail.
That’s led to some successes and failures. After Smalley, Robert Curl and Harold Kroto did their Nobel Prize-winning work to synthesize buckyballs, spherical arrays of 60 carbon molecules, it was Tour’s lab that found a way to produce buckyballs in large quantities. On the other hand, his lab then failed in its efforts to produce diamonds, another form of carbon, by crushing buckyballs.
“We’ve done some pretty wild things,” Tour said. “But once in awhile you win. Once in awhile you hit something and the world says, ‘How did you think of that?’
“The answer is: We think of a lot of crazy things, and we try a lot of crazy things. I’ve been hurt by thinking too small, but I have never been hurt by thinking too big.”