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Chemists Who Rock

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
April 13, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 15

I had the pleasure of attending my first “Rock Stars of Chemistry” event at the ACS national meeting in Denver. The ACS Division of Membership & Scientific Advancement hosts these occasions—and this was only the second—to facilitate networking between first-year members at the meeting and the most eminent members of the society and, one could argue, of the chemical sciences community. All ACS members who joined in the previous year are invited to attend this event, and the list of rock stars invited reflects the crème de la crème of our profession, including past and present Priestley Medalists, ACS presidents, Heroes of Chemistry (industrial scientists who have been so deemed by ACS), ACS journal editors, and foreign dignitaries. The objective of the event is for the rock stars to share their experiences with these new members and for the new members to have an opportunity to network, ask questions, and hopefully be inspired by the accomplishments the rock stars have achieved in their field and prestige they’ve garnered.

It was great to see a number of Nobel Prize winners mingling in the crowd. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable and confident many of the new members were. Most of those I spoke with had not yet finished their studies but had a very clear idea of where they wanted to go and what they were hoping to do. Interestingly, most had made their decision in terms of whether they were going to pursue a career in academia or industry. I wonder, if they wrote these aspirations or plans on a piece of paper and we met again in 10 years’ time, what percentage would have adhered to their initial choice?

While searching the Web for information about the Denver event, I stumbled upon a “top 10” rock stars of chemistry, which drew from from 1700 until 2011. The list was part of a presentation given during the opening ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry (2011) by the president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Now, this is a different “league” of rock stars, the Premier league, the David Bowies or Bob Dylans or Aretha Franklins of the chemical sciences. Before you read it, I should explain that the order does not reflect preference or accomplishments; it is simply a matter of ladies first followed by the gentlemen ordered by date of birth. Let’s see what you think:

1. Marie Curie (1867–1934)
2. Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94)
3. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804)
4. John Dalton (1766–1844)
5. Justus Liebig (1803–1873)
6. Friedrich Wöhler (1800–82)
7. Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907)
8. Emil Fischer (1852–1919)
9. Robert B. Woodward (1917–79)
10. Linus Pauling (1901–94)

In my view it is at least missing Frederick Sanger, who, like Curie and Pauling, is one of the very few to ever receive two Nobels. But my main criticism would be that, unlike Bowie, Dylan, or Franklin, who are still very much with us, there are no living chemists in the list.

So here’s a question for you: Who’s your living rock star of chemistry? And what makes a chemist a “rock star”?

For me, besides the quality of individuals’ scientific records and the impact of their published work (arguably both measurable), when looking for that rock-star quality, we need to consider two very subjective qualities: passion and charisma. When I think about the people who have motivated or inspired me, it’s been individuals with enormous presence and who are amazingly passionate about their work, living and breathing science.

So who will it be? Will it be h-index topper George Whitesides, nanotech king Chad Mirkin, sultan of synthesis Phil Baran, molecular machinist Ben Feringa? Will it be Priestley Medalist Jacqueline Barton, MacArthur “genius” awardee Carolyn Bertozzi, materials queen Tina Chowdhury?

Who tops your list of rock stars, and why? Tell us on Facebook ( or on Twitter with the hashtag #chemrockstar, or send us an e-mail or letter ( or see top of masthead).

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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Michal Hocek (April 13, 2015 1:04 PM)
Marvin Caruthers - without his automated phosphoramidite synthesis of oligonucleotides, there would be no molecular biology as we know it. This finding has changed the world!
Neil Gussman (April 14, 2015 11:02 AM)
Michelle Francl -- a theoretical chemist at Bryn Mawr College--a college with a graduating class about the size of a freshman chemistry class at the average Enormous State University. Francl writes about the culture of chemistry and gets involved in chemistry culture. In an article on Slate, Francl called "bullshit" on the Food Babe. She studies the frontiers of chemistry and also writes gracefully and well for blog readers. She is amazing!
Eric Scerri (April 14, 2015 1:11 PM)
How about contemporary chemists who actually play rock music such as in this video

Eric Scerri (April 14, 2015 1:12 PM)
How about contemporary chemists who actually play rock music such as in this video

Sergio Palazzi (April 14, 2015 3:38 PM)
In the White Dead Men list (sorry for Mme Curie) I don't see the greatest of them all, GN Lewis, nor the Mozart of science, M. Faraday, nor even a guitar-breaker like Cannizzaro. Had Volta and Proust been less complete and influential chemists than, e.g., Dalton or Priestley?
And not so many artists played a more sophisticated music than Prigogine.

At least one half of those above seem to me frankly overrated (yes, including Mme Curie, who surely has a place in the top ten but - maybe - not in the top five).

About Living People, it's difficult to say. Is someone a more complete musician than Harry Gray? and what about single-genre specialists like KCN? and where are you putting Roald Hoffmann, George Olah or the alternative-punk Harold Kroto, for instance?

In the end, it's like to say: which is the most fundamental of the Beatles? the only answer is of course "all four of them".
Ash Jogalekar (April 14, 2015 3:57 PM)
I would definitely pick Roald Hoffmann if asked to choose one. Nobel Prize-winning science, advocacy, philosophy of chemistry, poetry, playwriting and even a TV show - he has done it all. The only issue with him is that he is not as publicly visible as some other scientists. If I had to pick a scientist in that category I would probably pick Martyn Poliakoff.
Bibiana Campos Seijo (April 15, 2015 9:37 AM)
Good choices, Ash.
Thanks all for your contributions!
Philip Ball (April 14, 2015 5:45 PM)
I once saw Helmut Ringsdorf open and then finish a bottle of (his brother's) wine during a very charismatic talk in Germany, to the indignation of some in the audience. That was pretty rock'n'roll.
Robert Topper (April 18, 2015 3:27 PM)
Don Truhlar. Google Scholar ( is currently showing him at just under 100,000 citations and growing every year, and I'm pretty sure it's an under-estimate. Not only an amazing theorist, but a fantastic mentor to hundreds of physical chemists. He's so quiet and self-effacing that many might scoff at me calling him a "rock star." But he has done important work in every single branch of theory. There's literally no other theoretical chemist who has made essential contributions to so many different branches of the field. Plus, he's got the best deadpan sense of humor ever (just look at the smile he's wearing on the web page above; trust me, that's the real Don!).

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