Late last week, the editors at Nature Chemistry conducted a Twitter poll to answer the age-old question: ”Who is the greatest chemist of all-time?” Such a conversation falls right in my wheelhouse, and in honour of the lads at NChem, I am going to write this post in English. (I am qualified to do this, as my mother’s from England.)
The results of the poll are summarized on the NChem blog, Sceptical Chymist. Of the 86 votes cast, the following chemists received three or more:
Linus Pauling (16)
Dmitri Mendeleev (11)
Antoine Lavoisier (7)
Marie Curie (6)
R.B. Woodward (4)
Michael Faraday (4)
Gilbert Lewis (3)
Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said, “the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Incidentally, please follow my Twitter feed (@ChemBark) if you are interested in reading about what I eat for dinner.
With all due respect to my Twitter “tweeps”, are you daft? Who picks Marie Curie as the greatest chemist ever? Yes, she was a fantastic chemist. She might be most inspirational chemist ever, but the greatest ever? How could six of you agree on that?
Here’s how I see it using football as an analogy: if Pauling is Manchester United, Curie is Everton; she’s right up there in the top flight, but she’s not qualifying for the Champions League.
There were some other head-scratchers in the also-rans: Moseley? Noyori? Walden? Cannizzaro? Don’t get me wrong, they are all great chemists too, but number one? And let’s go back to Mendeleev. Yes, the concept of the periodic table is fantastic—and Mendeleev was robbed of a Nobel Prize for it—but I don’t think that this contribution alone is enough to justify a number-one vote. Others chemists made similar observations as Mendeleev, and even then the work was incomplete. The work in quantum mechanics that explains why the Periodic Table appears as it does is a greater contribution than the table itself.
Coming up with a rank-ordered list of the greatest chemists is a tough task, but I took a stab at it in the NChem comments thread. (Since then, I’ve decided to swap my #3 and #4.)
Top 5 Chemists…EVER
5. R. B. Woodward
He is the supreme deity of organic chemistry, and I’m still not sure he belongs in the top 5. Nevertheless, the magnitude of his accomplishments in a career that spanned the heyday of the field is humbling. He won the Nobel Prize in ’65 for his work in organic synthesis, and could have shared in two others: the ’73 prize for organometallics and the ’81 prize for orbital symmetry (the Woodward-Hoffmann rules).
4. Antoine Lavoisier
A rigorous experimentalist with major contributions to the understanding of gases, nomenclature, chemical education, and analytical chemistry.
3. Willard Gibbs
Laid out the foundation of chemical thermodynamics. Kind of important.
2. G.N. Lewis
Discovered the covalent bond and made major contributions to chemical thermodynamics, photochemistry, and acid-base theory. He probably should have won a share of the ’34 Nobel Prize for the discovery of deuterium.
1. Linus Pauling
Number one despite his rampant medical quackery. Applied quantum mechanics to understanding the nature of the chemical bond—a concept that lies at the very heart of chemistry. Also made major contributions to structural biology, particularly the structure of proteins. He might have won the race to the structure of DNA had he been privy to the same data as Watson and Crick.
My confidence in these assignments is low; I could easily have overlooked something. Feel free to ridicule me in the comments. And just for fun, here’s a blast from the past: my 2006 list of greatest organic chemists.