It just struck me. There has never been a chemistry genius. You can quote me on that, but don’t
get me wrong and please do read the entire post first.

Amazing discoveries in chemistry have been made, are being made and will be made. Chemistry has
so far given us penicillin that has spared the lives of many millions, rocket fuel powerful enough to take us to the moon and back, and not the least Slime®.

But have we ever had a genius among us? A real one. I don’t think we have.

I’m not saying Woodward or Pauling were untalented. What I am saying is that I don’t think
chemistry has had a Wittgenstein, Einstein or a Galilei — yet.

Wittgenstein and Woodward

In my book a genius is someone who nearly independently of others and practically alone gives us
unprecedented insights that shake the foundation of accepted beliefs and changes history forever.
(Perhaps also: is condemned by the Catholic church.)

There is undoubtedly a colossal amount of intellect in chemistry today, but do we have a one
individual at the genius level? Have we ever had? I’m not so sure.

At this point in time, I think a true genius is exactly what chemistry could use.


Update January 16, 2013

The response here and on Twitter has been overwhelming. Sorry for not being able to answer all of you in person. In summary so far, lots of fantastic candidates have been presented. Some are so good that I’m actually considering retracting the blog post. Then again, maybe not. I presented an hypothesis. You pour antitheses over me. Together we shape a synthesis, and one day we might even arrive at a thesis. That’s the way of science, right? Stay tuned!


20 Responses to Genius, where art thou?

  1. I didn’t realise genius had to be defined as so antisocial!

    ‘a genius is someone who, nearly independently of others and
    practically alone, ….’

    Geniuses can be social too, I’d hope. On that definition you exclude many.

    In chemistry, some candidates for ‘those who have provided unprecedented insights that shake the foundation of accepted beliefs and change history forever’, would be:

    Antoine Lavoisier
    Dmitry Mendeleev
    Robert Boyle
    Ludwig Boltzmann

    Looking at those, it’s probably fair to say that it was the genius of late 18th century/early 19th century physicists that laid the foundations of modern chemistry?

  2. Andrew Bissette says:

    There are several candidates for this, but if you’re ruling out Pauling, you may also rule these out. I consider Pauling to be a genius in your sense: provided fundamental principles in several fields (XRD, protein structure, chemical bonding); usually thought of as existing in a vacuum; persecuted for his Soviet sympathies. How about Ehrlich – is the ‘magic bullet’ not a revolutionary and pervasive idea, one which still guides at the very least popular notions of how drugs ought to work?

    I feel that your definition of genius is probably unsuited to chemistry, as the thinkers you refer to – Einstein, Gallileo, Darwin, etc. – are notable for radically altering humankind’s view of itself. Their ideas have significance beyond their immediate subjects: they changed philosophical discourse permanently. Our field is perhaps too limited or unreflective to have such far-reaching influence. The proof that atoms exist was revolutionary, and of philosophical significance, but probably not anthropocentric enough to be considered on par with relativity or natural selection.

    Which problem would you have your genius tackle? The only one I can think of (and maybe this is my own interest biasing me) is the origin of life. This is a subject amenable to theorising and philosophy, of significance to humans comparable to that of cosmology or evolution, and well-suited to chemical methods. It’s also painfully data-lite at present.

    That said: I disagree that chemistry needs a genius as you define it. While this does have a romantic appeal (born largely from the ‘great man’ scheme of history I suspect), I don’t see how a relatively long genius could do much chemistry. Perhaps if synthetic chemistry can be automated and streamlined, the lone genius will prevail. Until then, she’s going to need a lot of grad students to gather data for her.

    • VSaggiomo says:

      And I’m sorry but I have to comment on this as well as I’m trying to sensibilize people on the “origin of life” topic.
      This is, and it will always be a non experimentally solvable question. And this is for the simple reason that we don’t have billion of years and a free planet with the same pre-biotic condition to repeat the experiment. Without reproducibility a theory will always be only a theory (Feynman on scientific method:
      No experimental proofs = no answers.
      Interesting question, I agree, but no way to answer that question with experimental evidences

      • Andrew Bissette says:

        It depends on which question you refer to. If you are asking, “How did life arise on earth”, then you are of course right. Even if we develop a good understanding of what life is and the ways it may arise from non-living matter, and even if we have good reason to prefer one of these scenarios over others, this will always be a theory and never a proof. I don’t see this as a limitation; it’s common to any historical science.

        If, on the other hand, the question is simply “how may life arise?”, then we can answer this experimentally, provided we can find a good definition of ‘life’. This is not trivial.

        • VSaggiomo says:

          Naturally how “may” life arise is a total different question from “origin of life” and this is why we cheat and use the plural: origin(s) of life. Of course we “may” have a lot of answers. But never for “how did life arise on earth”, we agree on that.
          If you find a definition for life, call me 🙂

          Actually I find more intriguing the chemical “artificial life”

  3. drfreddy says:

    All: I’d love to stand corrected. In fact, I encourage everyone to prove me wrong.

    Andrew Bissette: Magnificent. Do you write? If not, you are wasting your talent! I agree that the origin of life would be quite something. Breslow to the rescue!

    • Andrew Bissette says:

      Oh, you flatter me sir. But thank you. I don’t write… YET. Watch this space.

      I’m trying to think of other projects that might elevate a synthetic chemist to the honour of ‘genius’. Perhaps if chemistry ever reactions ‘perfection’ – such that a one-armed idiot can synthesise taxol in his kitchen – Sharpless’ notion of ‘click’ chemistry might be viewed in this way. Maybe. (Maybe…)

  4. VSaggiomo says:

    we should first define the word genius. Because you cite three people that everyone of a general audience knows.
    But that’s mainly because Einstein was really good in using the media and Galilei… well let’s say that he had some problem with the church (that they solved in 2000). If you ask a non scientist the first thing that come up in their mind if you say “Einstein” they will remember just the smiley face with crazy hair and the formula on the black board…
    Few non-scientists knows Schroedinger or Feynman that are not less genial than Einstein.

    So if you are looking for a general audience that everyone should know as chemist, I would go for Alfred Nobel.
    If you are looking for a chemistry insider genius, then I would go for:
    Kerulé, and I love Hoffmann.

  5. milkshake says:

    There was young Luis Pasteur – his mid 19th century work on tartaric acid was absolutely brillant. He single-handidly started the field of chiral organic molecules. Explained racemization. Performed 3 different resolution techniques for the first time (resolution with a chiral base, a sponatanneus resolution of a racemic conglomerate by crystallization, and a fermentation-based resolution)

    Then Emil Fisher who starting from discovery of phenylhydrazine elucidated stereochemistry of sugars, based just on comparative study of melting points and elementary analysis of their derivates.

    The structural assigning of this caliber required a long chain of careful reasoning from a very indirect evidence. Considering that the absolute size of atoms and molecules was still unknown in early 20. century and there was no direct spectroscopic method for studying chemical bond properties.

  6. EJ says:

    How about:
    Fritz Haber
    Niels Bohr

    Just saw the post and these are the names we came up with in my group, but now have to get back to that lab work! Let me know what you guys think!

  7. Rex says:

    I think you also assume that a genius must be recognized as such by the public.

    I would argue that there are MANY chemists who “nearly independently of others and practically alone gives us unprecedented insights that shake the foundation of accepted beliefs and changes history forever”… we simply just don’t know their names as well as Einstein or Darwin!

    Prior to the synthesis of urea from inorganic salts, vitalism was a prevailing principle in chemistry (that organic compounds can only come from living organisms). Without a change in this paradigm, modern medicine might never have progressed beyond shamanism and naturopathic remedies! Still, how many people know the name Friedrich Wohler?

  8. moods says:

    Fischer was one of the first I thought of.
    What about chemists as public intellectuals? does the field have a Dawkins, Hawking, Chomsky, etc?

  9. “a genius is someone who nearly independently of others and practically alone gives us unprecedented insights that shake the foundation of accepted beliefs and changes history forever”

    But that really limits the field to people who do theory or very simple experiments. I think chemistry is much more connected and interdependent. This is also becoming increasingly the case for physics.

    Anyway, Boltzmann and Pauling have already been mentioned. You could also make a good case for Watson. Also G.N. Lewis certainly deserves to be mentioned.

    • Just Another Molecular Carpenter says:

      Horray for Pasteur, Fisher and Lewis. Chemistry is an experimental, data driven science. To me genius in chemistry ha two sides: (1) the design of an experiment (or body of experiments) to address an unknown and (2) the ability to work out what the results mean and assimilate that body of data into a (simple?) conclusion. Eschenmoser fits too, IMHA. Much of what we take for granted as “fundamentas of structure and reactivity” he worked out.

  10. ColumnSympathiser says:

    This may be slightly off-topic in contrast to the previous posts, but I felt compelled to share an excellent story on Fritz Haber.

    immediately came to mind when I saw Haber’s name. His is definitely a quintessential story of tragic genius.

  11. pcelsus says:

    I think Henry Moseley is one of the geniuses. He was killed in Gallipoli in 1st World War at the age of 28.

    I also think that Svante Arrhenius is among the geniuses.

    We definitely had many genius chemists, but physics is more popular among public. Physics news are widely covered in media, but unfortunately we don’t see that many chemistry related news. One of the goals of Mars mission is to find out whether life ever existed or not. But, nobody talks about “astrochemistry.” There is probably an astrochemist who is investigating the data from Mars.

    One of the reasons that physicists are widely known among people is because they all had some part in the development of quantum mechanics during the first 3 decades of 20th century and quantum mechanics really gets attention. And I also believe that the distinction between chemistry and physics is so small in the small scale. So, some of those physicists can also be considered as chemists may be. why not ? I know from my family and friends that many people think chemistry is all about “preparing solutions.”

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