Famous Scientists

Who were the most accomplished chemists of the 20th century? Of course such a question is unanswerable in any truly objective way, but that uncertainty doesn’t diminish our interest in speculating about “the answer.”

A couple of engineers at UCLA proposed a methodology for naming the 10 highest achieving physicists for the 20th century prior to World War II (the heyday of modern physics). Their approach is to equate accomplishment with fame, the latter as evidenced by hits on physics Nobel Prize winners in a Google search.

You could surely debate all manner of reasons why this is a wholly bad measurement tool, but the authors do offer some evidence for its veracity. You can check the arguments and the results for yourself, but no doubt you won’t be surprised to see Einstein at the head of the list.

Naturally I wondered about the test being applied to chemists. Here’s the result of the Googleized highest achieving chemists prior to mid-century, starting with number 1: 

  1. Marie Curie
  2. Fritz Haber
  3. Otto Hahn
  4. Sir William Ramsey
  5. Francis W. Aston
  6. Wilhelm Ostwald
  7. Emil Fischer
  8. Heinrich Wieland
  9. Carl Bosch
  10. The Svedberg

(For readers who think they know the history of chemistry: for how many of these chemists can you describe their work?)

If you add in the second half of the 20th century, Linus Pauling would break in the list as number 9 and Robert Woodward as number 6. In my book Pauling is in the running for number one, throwing some doubt on the method.

But guess who appears on the top ten lists in both physics and chemistry? Marie Curie, who is also the only woman on either. Go, Marie!


Posted In: History

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.