Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry

, Volume 375, Issue 1, pp 62–72 | Cite as

A century of progress in the sciences due to atomic weight and isotopic composition measurements

  •  J. de Laeter
  •  H. Peiser


Even before the 20th century, a consistent set of internationally accepted atomic weights was an important objective of the scientific community because of the fundamental importance of these values to science, technology and trade. As the 20th century progressed, physicists, geoscientists, and metrologists collaborated with chemists to revolutionize the science of atomic weights. At the beginning of the century, atomic weights were determined from mass relationships between chemical reactants and products of known stoichiometry. They are now derived from the measured isotopic composition of elements and the atomic masses of the isotopes. Accuracy in measuring atomic weights has improved continually, leading to the revelation of small but significant variations in the isotope abundances of many elements in their normal terrestrial occurrences caused by radioactivity and a variety of physicochemical and biochemical fractionation mechanisms. This atomic-weight variability has now been recognized as providing new scientific insights into and knowledge of the history of materials. Atomic weights, except those of the monoisotopic elements, are thus no longer regarded as "constants of nature". At the beginning of the 20th century, two scales for atomic weights were in common use: that based on the atomic weight of hydrogen being 1 and that based on the atomic weight of oxygen being 16. Atomic weights are now scaled to 12C, which has the value 12 exactly. Accurate atomic weights of silicon, silver, and argon, have enabled the values of the Avogadro, Faraday and Universal Gas constants, respectively, to be established, with consequent effects on other fundamental constants.

Atomic weights Isotope fractionation Fundamental constants Isotopic composition IUPAC Mass spectrometry 20th Century 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  •  J. de Laeter
    • 1
  •  H. Peiser
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U 1987, Perth, WA, 6845 Australia
  2. 2.Isotope Fractionation Project, U.S. Geological Survey, 431 National Center, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA

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