Issue Date: May 2, 2016
Overlooked by the Nobel
As a follow-up to Stu Borman’s coverage of the spring 2016 ACS national meeting session organized by the Division of the History of Chemistry regarding notable scientists who never won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (C&EN, April 11, page 19), I wanted to add to the discussion of snubbed chemist Michael Dewar.
Dewar certainly had no qualms whatsoever in questioning the theories of others. Indeed, as a freshly minted natural products chemist, he had the audacity to question Einstein’s theory of relativity by suggesting that all known phenomena could be included in a Newtonian universe. His 1947 article “An Interpretation of Light and Its Bearing on Cosmology” (Philos. Mag., DOI: 10.1080/14786444708521621) posits some of his ideas on cosmology.
Percy S. Manchand
I read Borman’s article on Nobel Prize nonwinners with interest, but the story overlooked several more deserving scientists.
Surely Gilbert N. Lewis of the University of California, Berkley, is an outstanding example of someone who richly deserved the Nobel Prize. His explanation of the covalent chemical bond is used everywhere. His theory of acids and bases is equally influential. He wrote the authoritative book on chemical thermodynamics. Other contributions could also be cited.
Not far behind is professor Rolf Huisgen of the University of Munich. An early discoverer of benzyne, he went on to fame for his studies of 1,3-dipolar cycloadditions. This research opened the way to a wide variety of heterocycles unavailable by any other means. Moreover, this cycloaddition has revolutionized polymer chemistry by providing means to couple a wide variety of structures.
Finally, along with professor Louis Hammett of Columbia University, who is mentioned in C&EN’s article, equal mention should be made of Christopher Ingold and Edward David Hughes of University College London. Their precise kinetics studies described the fundamental differences between SN1 and SN2 reactions at the base of physical organic chemistry.
Could you publish another article on this topic?
H. K. Hall Jr.
As told at an after-dinner talk at one of the Sanibel Island, Fla., quantum chemistry conferences led by the late Per-Olov Löwdin, who was also secretary for the Nobel Prize in Physics (1970–80), all the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences vote for all Nobel Prizes in science after each division (that is, physics, chemistry, etc.) announces the first and the second choices for each award. Usually, the first choice for each division wins. In chemistry, it happened only once that the second choice won. Löwdin mentioned the winner, but by now I forget (hopefully some of the 100 chemists present at that meeting may still remember). So one may say that there have been approximately at least as many losers as there are winners of the Nobel Prizes.
Anyway, could we be told the other five names of the 10 who “should have won the prize but didn’t” and were mentioned at the ACS national meeting in San Diego but weren’t mentioned in Borman’s story? I wonder how many from my list of “losers” are among the other five mentioned in San Diego. My list starts with (alphabetically) S. Francis Boys (1911–72), Eric Clar (1902–87), F. Albert Cotton (1930–2007), Erich Hückel (1896–1980), and Gilbert N. Lewis (1875–1946).
Strictly speaking, one should speak of “losers” only for persons known to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize. I learned that Dmitri Mendeleev was nominated four times and died during the fourth nomination, while Lewis was nominated a dozen times at least. So part of the problem may be that some outstanding chemists have never been nominated, and thus never considered, although in the view of many of us they should have been. So who should be blamed? Not everyone can send nominations for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This privilege is reserved for Nobel Prize winners and a select few who receive an invitation to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Let me end by mentioning that nominations for the Abel Prize (founded 13 years ago and known informally as the Nobel Prize in Mathematics), given annually by the Norwegian Academy of Science & Letters and presented by the king of Norway, can be sent by anyone and on behalf of any institution. Hence, if there is anything that one could do, it is to consider asking the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to change its rule on the restricted list of persons qualified to nominate candidates for a Nobel Prize. But before doing this, one should recall the “golden rule”: Those who have gold make the rules!
Editor’s note: After the print publication of Borman’s story, C&EN released an updated version online that highlights all the scientists mentioned during the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry session as well as some reader-submitted selections of individuals who should have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The updated story is available at cenm.ag/fivechemists.
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