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Who Are the Greatest Chemists Living & of All-Time?

  1. Aug 22, 2016 #1
    If you had to rank the most influential and skilled chemists of all-time and currently living, who would the be?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 22, 2016 #2


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    Chemistry is a fairly difficult field to rank as it encompasses such diverse sub-fields (organic, inorganic, physical, analytical, biological, nano, materials, etc.). Some areas are closer to physics, some closer to engineering, and some areas are closer to biology. In addition, there are the perennial questions of how one defines "greatest," "most influential," or "most skilled." (Most skilled is probably not a good criteria as skills vary quite wildly across sub-disciplines. How would you compare the skill of a synthetic organic chemist versus a computational or theoretical chemist? Furthermore, as chemists advance in their careers, they spend less time at the bench and more time overseeing projects. I'm fairly certain most grad students and postdocs would be more skilled at bench work than their bosses, but few would say they are greater or more influential chemists).

    That said, there have been various attempts on the internet to make such a list:

    I'd probably agree with the first link in saying that if one had to choose a greatest chemist of all time, Linus Pauling is not a bad choice. Citations is certainly a measure of influence, so the Science Watch link provides one way to measure the most influential living chemist. However, I'm not sure I would agree with their ordering as it seems to have systematic biases for certain sub-fields of chemistry.
  4. Aug 22, 2016 #3

    Fervent Freyja

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    This list contains a few Nobel laureates in Chemistry that are still living, many of which aren't even on the Sciencewatch list Ygggdrasil posted above. Though, no list you could find would be truly reflective under such a broad domain as chemistry. You may get a more accurate representation if asking for a list of the most influential people within sub-fields.

    Edit: Actually, the only laureate from 2003-present that is also on that watch list is Robert H. Grubbs. That goes to show...
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2016
  5. Aug 22, 2016 #4


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    Just quickly looking through the list Sharpless, Smalley, Noyori, and Finn are all Nobelists in addition to Grubbs. Note that the Chemistry Nobel quite often goes to non-chemists and it's often given late into scientists careers (some Nobels are awarded after the scientist has retired), so it's not surprising that recent Nobelists were not highly cited in the 2000s. It's possible that the most Science Watch list may predict Nobel Prizes in the 2020s, though the top 10 is quite nanotech heavy and I'm not sure research in that area has really panned out to give any practical applications worthy of a Nobel prize yet. The list basically shows how imperfect citations are as a metric for measuring scientific influence.
  6. Aug 23, 2016 #5
    Hmm, why are Nobels in chemistry often given to NON-chem. people?

    Is this common for other disciplines?

    Also, what about reputation metrics? Surely, there are people who are considered the "best" without necessarily being the most cited, right?

    Thanks for the input, though! Very interesting. I will check out the watch list and other links!!
  7. Aug 24, 2016 #6


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    Biology, especially molecular biology, is essentially an application of chemistry, and many molecular biologists, biochemists, and structural biologists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recent years. The Science Watch list (I assume, since they're not really transparent about their methods) looks only at citations in chemistry journals, whereas the more biology-focused Nobelists typically publish in biology journals.

    It is most common in chemistry, though it happens in other fields. For examples, two of the winners of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were chemists who helped discover/develop new drugs to combat malaria and roundworms.

    Yes, citations are probably a poor metric for deciding who are the "best" or most influential scientists.
  8. Aug 24, 2016 #7
    E.J. Corey and R.B. Woodward are certainly worth mentioning. Both are noble laureates and major pioneers in their fields. E.J. Corey is still alive; he is the pioneer of retrosynthetic analysis, a very powerful tool in organic synthesis. R.B. Woodward, no longer alive, is the main pioneer of organic spectroscopy. Both Corey and Woodward were also responsible for immense organic synthesis.

    Of, there is the king Linus Pauling also; two Noble Prizes!

    The Germans had some amazing chemists too; i.e. Richard Willstätter, Walter Reppe, and etc.
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