Thinking outside the tube sets a record

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July 12, 2005 – Sometimes it takes a lot to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. At Rice University, it required an astronaut, a U.S. district judge, two Nobel laureates, a cheerleading squad, 100 volunteers, 1,000 bystanders, 63,000 plastic model pieces and $15,000.

OK, all it really needed was two independent witnesses and a few hands to snap the pieces representing atoms into a 1,000-foot-long model of a carbon nanotube. The model, calculated to be in scale with the real thing, will join a few other molecular milestones in the book: a carbon fiber that holds the title as the longest nanotube; a nanotube that qualified as the world’s smallest test tube, and a model of a DNA strand akin to Rice’s.

The inspiration came from a celebration for Nobel Prize winners Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, both chemists at Rice, to honor them for their discovery of fullerenes. Each table at the dinner was decorated with a model of the fullerene’s tubular form, the nanotube.

“People loved them so much they carried them off,” said Wade Adams, director of the Nanoscale Science and Technology Center at Rice and an organizer of the Guinness gala. His colleague Matteo Pasquali suggested having students build a scale model to illustrate the nanotube’s length-to-width ratio. More brainstorming and a desire to do “something outrageous” led to the Guinness idea, Adams said.

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell and U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes attended the April 22 event as witnesses. The cheerleading squad led the crowd in two nanotube cheers as volunteers assembled the model.

The tube didn’t remain intact for long, though. Parts have been sent to Hewlett-Packard and other sponsors. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will put a segment on display. Rice will retain some as a memorial — along with the record-holding title.


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