Adventures in Ethics and Science

Famous chemist trivia.

Greetings from the BCCE! Well, actually from a cafe down the street from the BCCE, since the wireless accounts that were supposed to be set up for conference goers are not currently functional. (The lengths to which I’m willing to go to satisfy my readers!) The immediate result of this situation is it will take comments a bit longer to go up.

But, I have gathered (from the talks on how to convey the “nature of science” to students) some fun facts about famous chemists.

Mendeleev (who came up with the periodic table) liked cowboy novels and hated Dostoyevsky. He never believed in electrons (thinking that what was being detected in various experiments must be the ether that the Michelson-Morley experiment ended up doing away with). Although he was nominated for a Nobel Prize, Arrhenius threw his weight around to block Mendeleev from winning it. And, Mendeleev is remembered as the father of the Russian cheese industry. Mmmm, cheese!

Lise Meitner (technically a physicist, but we love her just the same) and chemist Otto Hahn (with the assistance of Fritz Strassmann and Otto Robert Frisch) essentially co-discovered fission. However, Hahn was a solo recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this discovery. Meitner, apparently, didn’t care about losing out on this prize, though. And, she has an element in the Periodic Table (meitnerium, element-109) named after her. Element-105 was almost named hahnium in Otto Hahn’s honor, but the IUPAC decided that a Russian team discovered element-105 before the American team that suggested naming it hahnium and gave it the name proposed by the Russians (dubnium) instead.

Louis de Broglie is rumored to have the shortest Ph.D. thesis on record. Arrhenius‘s dissertation (dealing with the then-controversial subject of ionization) received a “fourth grade” mark, one of the lowest you could get.

1912 was an Olympic year. Niels Bohr was trying out for the Danish Olympic soccer team. He was the last player cut. Having been cut, he went instead to work with Rutherford, and started to figure out the quantum atom.

If I get more juicy tidbits, I’ll post them. In the meantime, I’ll post a sentence uttered during one of talks today and let you guess the context:

“This is not a race of experimental lubricants.”

Anyone? Anyone?


  1. #1 Dave S.
    July 31, 2006

    “This is not a race of experimental lubricants.”

    Hmmm…maybe it has to do with those solar powered car races, and the talk was of one team which also has the assistance of chemists in their university making greased lightning goop that might not be kosher with every other team who had to use Crisco.

    Mendeleev (who came up with the periodic table)…

    Four years before Mendeleev, John Newlands put forth his own periodic table based on “octaves”. But Newlands hadn’t thought to leave empty spaces for then possibly unknown elements and tried to jam all the known elements to fit his scheme, with inconsistent results. And his unfortunate use of musical terminology made his ideas seem a bit too comical for some.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 31, 2006

    Yes, others were working out principles with which to organize the (then known) elements; since Mendeleev’s (more or less) was the one that stuck, he usually gets credited with developing “the periodic table”. But readers here are definitely invited to read up on Newlands and others who were pursuing these projects. (Unfortunately, I have no juicy gossip to offer on Newlands.)

    maybe it has to do with those solar powered car races

    You’re in the right territory here. (Where the conference is being held may be a good hint.)

  3. #3 coturnix
    July 31, 2006

    I thought that Hamilton’s Dissertation, being only one page of math long, was the shortest. Razib may not more about that.

    Arrhenius was a life-long proponent of a mysterius cosmic Factor X as a synchronizer of circadian rhythms, in spite of experimental evidence by Pfeffer, Zinn, Darwin and others.

  4. #4 greensmile
    August 1, 2006

    I’m no chemist, but every childhood graced with an interest in science accumulates a share of indelible factoids. This is not so obscure as I expected it to be:

    The formula for benzene C6H6 was known with some confidence but every chemist of the era was too “linear” in their thinking and could not get a satisfactory structural arrangement of the molecule that fit any theory of atomic bonding. Kekule who did much of the founding work of organic chemistry is reported to have fallen asleep after racking his brain over the structural problem and had a dream of a snake eating its tail. Voila! the aromatic hydrocarbon ring. [the link recounts a snake, my memory of the children’s science book was a dream of 6 demons holding hands and dancing in a circle…which should I trust?]

  5. #5 zwa
    August 2, 2006

    There was a circular depiction of benzene that predates Kekule. Its mentioned in for those with acess to organic and biomolecular chemistry.

  6. #6 Lab Lemming
    August 3, 2006

    Why are so many people obsessed about who did X first. Science would be much better served by remembering who did it best.

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