Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946)

Poor under appreciated G. N. Lewis, perhaps the most famous chemist never to win a Nobel Prize, despite having been nominated 35 times. A few of his accomplishments included:
  • From 1912 to 1941, at a time went Germany still dominated the field, he put the University of California chemistry department on the international map: Lewis did for Berkeley chemistry what Oppenheimer and Lawrence did for physics there.
  • In 1923, he formulated the electron-pair theory of acid-base reactions. In the so-called Lewis theory of acids and bases, a "Lewis acid" is an electron-pair acceptor and a "Lewis base" is an electron-pair donor. It's hard to overemphasize how conceptually useful this concept remains in chemistry.
  • Also in 1923, Lewis published a monograph on his theories of the chemical bond and formulated what later became known as the covalent bond. These ideas reached back to 1916. 
  • Lewis coined the term "photon" and was involved in many of the theoretical and experimental problems of his day including: electrolytes, thermodynamics, and valence bond theory. 
So what went wrong? According to the Wiki:
In 1946, a graduate student found Lewis's lifeless body under a laboratory workbench at Berkeley. Lewis had been working on an experiment with liquid hydrogen cyanide, and deadly fumes from a broken line had leaked into the laboratory. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was coronary artery disease, but some believe that it may have been a suicide. Berkeley Emeritus Professor William Jolly, who reported the various views on Lewis's death in his 1987 history of UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, "From Retorts to Lasers", wrote that a higher-up in the department believed that Lewis had committed suicide.
Is this true? Why? I intend to read Jolly's book. Meanwhile, Patrick Coffey, a businessman and former chemist who moonlights as a historian, thinks otherwise:
He was brilliant intellectually, he could cut right through to the simplest solution to any problem. The downside of Lewis was he was very prickly and made a lot of enemies.
He'd been home-schooled as a child. He never seemed comfortable outside his closed environment. He probably needed to get in more fights on the playground.
He built his own support system, but when he got out of that system, if anybody gave him any slight at all he'd hold a lifelong grudge. Lewis's exacting nature sometimes got the best of him.
By the time of his death, he'd completely estranged himself from at least four Nobel laureates, and one of them was Irving Langmuir.
Yeesh, Coffey makes the Chemistry Nobel sound like the Oscars. He goes on to say:
There's nothing criminal here, but it's interesting, that probably the two greatest physical chemists [Lewis and Langmuir] of the 20th century had lunch together the day one of them died. 
Read the linked article and make up your own mind. I'm still gathering facts.


  1. I love how 'they' go after the home schooling. Granted, home schooling back then didn't have the home schooling support groups and social hoo-haas that we have these day, "but still!". Fascinating though. I remember covalent bonds - its the stuff that makes water such an incredible thing, though I don't remember why hehe.

  2. I remember covalent bonds - its the stuff that makes water such an incredible thing, though I don't remember why hehe.

    Candle: hydrogen bonds are what make water such a cool substance, not covalent bonds. :)

    The best examples of pure covalent bonds are the C-C and C-H bonds in candle wax. Your avi looks very covalent.

    Seriously, I don't know why Coffey wrote that- maybe he moonlights as a teacher's union thug.

  3. I thought covalent bonds had something to do with 2 molecules having double connections to each other...something like that. But ya I guess it was hydrogen bonds that were all awesome. When I grow up, I want to be a covalent bond :(

  4. Candle. In a sense, hydrogen bonds i.e.,
    weak H2O---HOH bonds between water molecules are kind of covalent; at least they're not ionic; but they're much weaker than the covalent O-H (2-center, 2-electron) bonds within a water molecule.

    This is exactly what Lewis and his antagonists fought over: where are the bonding electrons located? Lewis lost the war against the molecular orbital (MO) theory crowd, even though we still like to think in terms of his simpler pictures.

    Dang, you've inspired me continue this story.

  5. Yeah, the Nobels go to the players.

  6. Hey chuck b.! Just noticed that you dropped by here and left a comment. Thanks so much.
    I guess twitter advertising does work!