100 years in … Chemistry

Science 2014-10-28

This year marks 100 years of IHS Chemical Week. To commemorate the anniversary, we would like to dedicate this series of blog posts to Chemical Week and their contribution to the field, by taking a look back at the last century in Science.  Last week we looked at the greatest discoveries in Biology, which you can find here.


This week we are looking at the last 100 years in Chemistry.


Chemistry has had huge advances in the last century, ranging from the development of Computational Chemistry to the discovery of conductive polymers and solar panels. The achievements and discoveries that I have picked out from a range of areas and decades are Marie Curie’s Radium and Polonium, X-ray crystallography, Linus Pauling’s The Nature of Chemical Bonds and this year’s Noble Prize in Chemistry for super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.



Marie Curie

Marie Curie is the first person to be awarded two Noble Prizes. She received the Noble Prize for Physics in 1903 and the Noble Prize for Chemistry, just over a century ago, in 1911. Her achievements include the discovery of radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature of this remarkable element. She hypothesised that the radiation was not the outcome of the interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself. Marie with the help of her husband Pierre found that the mineral Pitchblende was more active than Uranium and concluded that it must contain other radioactive substances. From this they managed to extract two unknown elements, Polonium and Radium. Following this discovery, a lot more is known about these radioactive materials including their adverse health effects.




X-ray crystallography was discovered by William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg. They won the Noble Prize in Physics in 1915, however it has now become arguably, one of the most powerful analytical techniques available to chemists. 27 Noble Prizes have been awarded as a direct result of this discovery, including for the structure of graphene, fullerenes and the helical structure of DNA, which was discussed in the ‘100 years in biology’ blog post.


In fact Max Perultz, a recipient of one of these noble prizes stated in regard to x-ray crystallography:


“Why water boils at 100ºC and methane at -161ºC, why blood is red and grass is green, why diamond is hard and wax is soft, why glaciers flow and iron gets hard when you hammer it, how muscles contract, how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever more complex forms … the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis.”


The Braggs shone x-rays on a clean crystal of salt, which formed a diffraction pattern on the photographic paper placed behind it. They realised that this pattern was related to the molecular structure of the salt. They presented a formula, which enabled them to work out the arrangement of atoms in the crystal structure. This formula is now known as Bragg’s law. Their work not only confirmed the existence of atoms but also showed how compounds are formed.




Linus Pauling was the first person to receive two unshared noble prizes. He was awarded the Noble Prize for Chemistry in 1954 “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.” Pauling’s book on The Nature Of The Chemical Bond became one of the most influential chemistry books ever published. He designed an electronegativity scale to assign atoms involved in covalent and ionic bonding. He also used X-ray diffraction to determine the structures of many molecules including the alpha helices and beta sheets that make up the secondary structure of protein. Furthermore he demonstrated that the haemoglobin molecule changes structure when it gains and loses an oxygen atom. He was also awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1963 due to his activism against nuclear bombs.




The Noble Prize in Chemistry in 2014 was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. This has enabled optical microscopy to be done on a nanoscale. Using this technique, known as nanoscopy, scientists can visualise how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain, they can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. This is important as nanoscopy is used worldwide and new discoveries like this will greatly benefit mankind.


For more achievements in science make sure to catch up on the rest of this series with 100 years in… Astronomy and Physics, Biology and Technology.  


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Make sure to Tweet me @LucyAtNotch to let me know which subject you think has had the most amazing achievements in the last 100 years!