Thursday, August 8, 2013

3. Physical chemists are who physical chemists train (and a few others too!)

If we are going to ask about the ontology of physical chemistry or chemical physics, it is perhaps useful to start by asking who adopts these titular phrases in the first place. The funny thing is that a scientist's self-identity is typically directed according to the so-called academic genealogy that follows the mentor-apprentice relationships  conferring doctoral degrees. Though not as formally granted, postdoctoral training is also included in academic genealogies, thereby conferring multiple "parents" to a single scientist. Not surprisingly, there are websites such as that track these lineages. An early such project started at Illinois catalogs the academic genealogies of their faculty ( and a few other notable chemistry departments. An interesting book by Paul Servos tracked the history of physical chemistry according to the line of chemists starting with Friedrich Ostwald through to Linus Pauling...

Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
Cal Tech, 1925
Roscoe Gilvey Dickinson (1894-1945)
Cal Tech, 1920
Arthur Amos Noyes (1866-1936)
Leipzig, 1890
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932)
Dorpat (Latvia), 1878

The funny thing is that the academic genealogy of most (American) physical chemists overlap with at least one of these nodes (either through the graduate student or postdoc lines). Mine is no exception as you can see from my academic genealogy (at which meets the lineage at Pauling. One notable exception is Ira Remsen who was among the first of the American Professors to train and sponsor Ph.D.s in this country (at the Johns Hopkins University). I don't know the extent to which the academic genealogies of physical chemists around the world also trace back to Ostwald. I would be happy to hear if yours does or does not!

The point of all of this is that physical chemistry as a field has been critically shaped by the intellectual movements from Ostwald's school. It's not an exclusive club, however, nor should it prevent such physical chemists from expanding beyond. Indeed, what has made physical chemistry an exciting field is the ever changing paradigm shifts that have advanced our fundamental understanding of the chemistry and physics of atoms and molecules. This requires diversity of thought. It has evidently come from the subsequent generations despite our tight academic lineages.

(This is the third post in a series starting with the first one on interdisciplinary sciences.
Click here for the previous post.)


  1. Interesting Rigoberto. As a physical chemist, my genealogy does not intersect this canonical line, but rather is traced back, through an organic chemistry influence, to Wittig and earlier to Gay-Lussac and Lavoisier.

    1. Gay-Lussac was one of Ostwald's academic great-grandparents. So yours just got off the tree a little earlier. :-) (Lavoisier was technically not in either line as his role was as a co-worker of Berthollet and a few others while they were all essentially working "under" Bucquet.)

  2. Hi Rig,
    I used these to develop a "family tree" for our p-chem division. It's interesting to see the connectivity between lineages and development of a number of focal points.

    1. Cool! What percentage were on the Ostwald node? What were the other focal points?