Monday, June 29, 2020

Can you name a famous living Chemist? Can anyone?

I was re-watching the  Greatest-of-all-time Jeopardy championship and the following happen (I paraphrase)

Alex Trebek: The category is Chemistry and we have a special guest reading the clues.

Darling: I wonder who that will be.

Bill: Hmm. I assume some famous chemist.

So who was it? Bryan Cranston, the actor who PLAYED chemist Walter White on Breaking Bad.

Why couldn't they get a famous living chemist to read the clues?

My guess: there are no famous living chemists.

The number of famous living scientists is fairly short and they are often known for things that are not quite their science. Some are famous because the popularize science (deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins) or because of something unusual about their life (Hawkings when he was alive) or for something else entirely that they did (Ted Kaczynski).  Are any famous for the actual work that they do in the science?

Andrew Wiles was famous for a brief time, and even made People Magazine's 25 most intriguing people of the year list in the early 1990's (after he solved Fermat's Last Theorem). So he was famous but it was short lived.

Terry Tao was on the Colbert Report (see here) after he won the Fields Medal, the MacAuthor Genius award, and the Breakthrough prize. And even that fame was short lived.

I looked at the web page of Nobel Prize winners, here.

The only Chemistry Nobel's I recognized were Marie Curie,  Irene Joilet-Curie (Marie's Daughter), and Erst Rutherford.

The only Physics Nobel's I recognized were

Richard Feynman,

 Eugene Wigner (for writing about The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences),

Richard Hofstadter (since he was the father of Douglas H and an uncle of Leonard H)

 Andrew Geim (since he won  both an Ig-Noble prize and a Nobel prize, see  here)

Wolfgang Pauli (I've heard the term `Pauli Principle" though I did not know what it was until I looked it up while preparing this blog. I prob still don't really know what it means.)

Enrico Fermi

Erwin Schrodinger

Paul Dirac

Robert Millikan

Albert Einstein

Max Karl Ernest Ludwig Planck (I thought his last name was `Institute')

Johannes Diderik van der Waals

Pierre Curie

Marie Curie

So, some questions:

a) Am I wrong? Are there famous living chemists I never heard of? Are there any famous living scientists who are famous for their work in science?

b) If I am right then was there ever a time when there were famous scientists?

c) If there was such a time, what changed?

(I ask all of this non-rhetorically and with no agenda to push.)


  1. I've heard of Sir Martyn Poliakoff because he has a YouTube channel:

  2. Angela Merkel is probably the most famous living chemistry researcher, but she hasn't written a paper since 1990.

  3. August Kekulé, see:é
    famous for his dream ...
    "discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail (this is an ancient symbol known as the ouroboros)"

  4. John B.Goodenough (2019) might count as famous, because advanced battery technology is enough of a "thing" now to get media attention.

    Richard Smalley (1996) got a lot of media attention especially when Nanotechnology was at its peak in popular press and any stock with "nano" in its name attracted investment. Known for Buckminsterfullerenes, etc.

    Karry Mullis (1993) famous for PCR, had his time a media star of sorts.

    -- Guy Shaw

  5. And for physics ...

    Kip Thorne (2017) co-author of "Gravition".
    To be famous, it helps to write a big book with a memorable picture on the cover.

    Peter W. Higgs (2013) Higgs Boson. Great human interest story.
    The fact that the story involves a very photogenic Large Hadron Collider doesn't hurt. That collider gets a lot of publicity.

    Stephen Chu (1997) would not be as famous if it were not for his other career as Secretary of Energy.

    -- Guy Shaw

  6. Laci Babai was referenced on Stargate, if that counts as being famous.

  7. Thanks- I looked it up so here is a pointer to more details:

    ALSO- Was it a good episode? See this post about having your math
    mentioned in on TV:

  8. Did you really not recognize Linus Pauling? I would have thought he was the most famous living chemist before his death in 1994.

  9. And continuing my comment, I would have thought Pauling was just as famous as most of the physicists you named above. But maybe he was the last famous chemist.

  10. I think Peter Shor is a famous physicist/computer scientist?

  11. Charles Lieber, (recently in)famous chemist who made the news recently for his... contributions from China.

  12. Isaac Asimov?

  13. I was thinking of Isaac Asimov, but he isn't alive. He was certainly famous when he was alive. I never thought Hari Seldon acted like a mathematician (I haven't read the prequels).

  14. I thought James Watson is a famous living chemist (DNA molecular structure sounds like chemistry to me), but Wikipedia says "molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist."

  15. +1 for Goodenough. I've seen several articles about him in the pop science / tech press.