The (not so) secret lives of chemists


I recently discovered the astonishing fact that Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood film actress from the 1940s, was also the co-inventor of an early form of the spread spectrum technique, which is key to wireless communication technology. This got me thinking about whether any chemists had also enjoyed success in completely different fields.

Of course, there are many chemists who have artistic talents. Perhaps most notably, Roald Hoffman has published books of poems. And there are at east two accomplished magicians – David Leigh and Koji Nakanishi both enjoy performing impromptu magic tricks at chemistry conferences. But all of these guys would be recognized first and foremost as scientists.

There are also several famous people with a chemistry background. The writer Primo Levi is a well-known example. I’m sure many of you have read his work, including The Periodic Table – a collection of short stories, each relating to a different element. Margaret Thatcher had a brief career as a chemist, before she became a politician. She was, apparently, part of a team that developed the first soft frozen ice cream. But did you know that Dolph Lundgren has a degree in chemical engineering, and won a scholarship to MIT? (Although he quit after two weeks to become an actor.)

But none of these people made a lasting contribution to science, so they’re not really up there with Hedy Lamarr. But I did find one chemist who I think probably is. A round of applause please, for Alexander Borodin – world famous composer (perhaps most notably for his opera, Prince Igor) and chemist credited as having discovered the Borodin reaction (also known as the Hunsdiecker reaction).

So there you have it. In my opinion, Borodin gets the award for the most notable chemist also famous in an unrelated field. Or do you know better?


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

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