Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 13–18 | Cite as

Naming elements after scientists: an account of a controversy

Article

Abstract

Over the last two hundred years, there have been many occasions where the name of a newly-discovered element has provoked controversy and dissent but in modern times, the naming of elements after scientists has proved to be particularly contentious. Here we recount the threads of this story, predominantly through discourses in the popular scientific journals, the first major discussion on naming an element after a scientist (Moseley); the first definitive naming after a scientist (Curie); and the first naming after a living scientist (Seaborg).

Keywords

Periodic table Nomenclature Elements Moseleyum Curium Seaborgium 

Moseleyum

Henry Moseley had shown that each chemical element is characterized by an integer, N, which determines its X-ray spectrum. He identified this integer with the number of positive charges in the nucleus. Moseley found known elements to correspond with every element for N = 13–79, except for three numbers: 43, 61, and 75 (Heilbron 1974) (in fact there was a fourth missing element as Moseley had erroneously assigned the spurious element celtium as N = 72).

The systematic search for element 43 was started in 1924. Bosenquet and Keeley expected this element, eka-manganese according to Mendeleev, would be found in association with manganese, thus they undertook a thorough study by X-ray spectroscopy of residuals from manganese ores (Bosenquet and Keeley 1924). Though they were unsuccessful, it was anticipated that discovery of this missing element was imminent. Richard Hamer, of the University of Pittsburgh, expressed concern that the conflict over naming element 72 as celtium or hafnium (Weeks and Leicester 1968) would be repeated with element 43. For this reason, he proposed that a name be agreed upon before the discovery was actually made (Hamer 1925):

My suggestion is to call this missing element of atomic number 43 Moseleyum (symbol Ms) in honour of the young British physicist Moseley who did so much to establish the important facts concerning these missing elements, their locations in the periodic scheme, with all that this means, and the limited number of the same.

The journal Science supported this proposal (Anon. 1925):

Hitherto, no chemical element has been named after an individual (we exclude mercury, tantalum, thorium and titanium for an obvious reason), and opinion may be divided on the advisability of making the innovation. It is, however, a mistake to be bound by precedent in such a matter, and the only objection we can foresee to the adoption of Professor Hamer’s suggestion is that the word is not particularly euphonious, and is rather suggestive of certain sepulchral monuments; but it might be argued that even this suggestiveness is not inappropriate, inasmuch as mausoleums are erected, as a rule, to the memory of the illustrious dead.

Masson (1925) had contended that the precedent had already been set when element 64 had been named gadolinium after the Swedish chemist Johan Gadolin. The editor of Science responded that, in fact, it was the mineral gadolinite, discovered in 1788, that had been named after Gadolin (Anon. 1925). He stated that when Jean-Charles Galissard de Marignac chose the name gadolinium for the newly-discovered element in 1886, he did not give any reason for the choice. The editor also added that the mineral samarskite was named after the Russian mining engineer, V. E. Samarskii-Bykovets, and that the name of element 62, samarium, derived directly from the mineral. Whether the element names had been directly, or indirectly via the mineral, named after individuals, the editor felt the precedent had been set and hence the proposal to name element 43 after Moseley was uncontroversial and strongly supportable.

Unfortunately, the discovery of element 43 was not imminent and it did not happen until 1937 (Zingales 2005). There had been so many claimed discoveries and corresponding names for element 43, that Friedrich Paneth suggested that the right of naming a new (radioactive) element should lie with the first researcher who had given definite proof of the existence of one of that element’s isotopes (Paneth 1947; Koppenol 2005). Further, Paneth argued that all previously proposed names should be excluded from consideration. For this reason, element 43 was given the ‘new’ name of technetium.

Though the authors of the debate on moseleyum were clearly unaware, there had been several earlier suggestions to name an element after a famous scientist (van der Krogt 2007). Each of these element claims were subsequently proved to be spurious. Nevertheless, the list gives an insight into which individuals were considered to be famous enough for the honour (see Table 1).
Table 1

Spurious elements named after scientists (from van der Krogt 2007)

Scientist

Spurious element claim

Jöns Jacob Berzelius

Berzelium

Humphry Davy

Davyum

Martin Heinrich Klaproth

Klaprothium

Carl Gustav Mosander

Mosandrum

Isaac Newton

Newtonium

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Scheelium

Curium

The next element to be named after a person—or more correctly—persons, was curium. Glenn Seaborg had been the first to announce that the trans-uranium elements formed a parallel sequence to the lanthanoids rather than being the start of the next transition metal series. To emphasize this point, he suggested that the names of the newly-discovered actinoids, elements 95 and 96, should be derived according to the corresponding lanthanoids: europium and gadolinium. As he reports in his autobiography (Seaborg and Seaborg 2001): “At a meeting of the Heavy Isotopes Group at the Metallurgical Laboratory on March 5, 1946, I suggested that 95 and 96 be named ‘americium’ and ‘curium’ by analogy to the naming of their lanthanide homologs ‘europium’ and ‘gadolinium’.” Thus the naming of curium was on the assumption that gadolinum had indeed been named after Gadolin and therefore had set the precendent for naming an element after an individual. The proposal was accepted without debate. From then on, naming an element after a famous scientist became an accepted and common option.

Seaborgium

In June 1974, a research team led by Albert Ghiorso at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, reported creating an isotope of element 106. The synthesis was confirmed in 1993 by the team of Ken Gregorich and Darlene Hoffman. Seaborg recounted the story of the name proposal in his autobiography (Seaborg and Seaborg 2001):

The eight members of the Ghiorso group suggested a wide range of names honouring Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Ferdinand Magellan, the mythical Ulysses, George Washington, and Finland, the native land of one member of the team. There was no focus and no frontrunner for a long period. Then one day, Al [Ghiorso] walked into my office and asked what I thought of naming element 106 “seaborgium.” I was floored. Al explained that someone had jokingly asked him if he planned to name this new element “ghiorsium.” The joke set Al to thinking that maybe we didn’t need to look far to find someone to name it after.

The name and corresponding symbol, Sg, was announced at the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in March 1994 (Anon. 2007). However, it is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) which has the international authority to assign a name to a chemical element (Fennell 1994; Brown 2001). The first international dispute settled by IUPAC had been the name and symbol of element 41. The competing claims of columbium (symbol Cb) and niobium were arbitrated by IUPAC in 1950 after 100 years of controversy (though the U.S. Department of the Interior and some other organizations still refer to the metal as columbium). This decision was a compromise of sorts: IUPAC accepted tungsten instead of wolfram for element 74, in deference to North American usage (while keeping W as the symbol); and niobium instead of columbium, in deference to European usage.

The naming of element 106 was one of nine in limbo (elements 101–109) until the element synthesis had been confirmed and until any dispute over the initial discovery had been resolved. However, it was element 106 that proved to be the cause celebre. In 1986, IUPAC and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) set up a Transfermium Working Group (TWG) to clarify the issue of which group had the prior claim to an element discovery.

The most prominent groups involved in attempts to synthesize ever-heavier elements have been: the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California; the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia; and the Gesellschaft für Schwerionen Forschung (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany. The TWG pronounced in 1993 on their decision as to which of the competing claims that they accepted for the first synthesis of each element (Anon. 1994). Thus the time had come for the assignment of definitive names.

IUPAC had developed a clear series of rules for the provisional naming of new elements involving combinations of hybrid Greek-Roman numeric prefixes followed by “–ium” together with corresponding three-letter combinations for the symbols, clearly differentiating them from the one- or two-letter conventional symbols (Fernelius et al. 1975). Unfortunately, each group had announced a name for every element to which it lay claim. Thus in the United States, and to a certain extent the rest of the English-speaking world, the Berkeley-proposed names of four of the nine: mendelevium (101), lawrencium (103), rutherfordium (104), and hahnium (105) had become accepted by repeated usage.

The recommendations for the definitive names of the elements were made by a meeting of twenty members of the Commission on Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (CNIC) in Hungary on 31 August 1994 (Anon. 1995; Freemantle and Dagani 1994) (Table 2). Five of the delegates were from the United States while the others represented Australia, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Holland, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. All the names were chosen from those submitted by the three laboratories and secret balloting was used for each name assignment. Prior to the regular voting, a special vote was taken whether an element should be named after a living person, contending that a living person’s accomplishments cannot be assessed from “the perspective of history” (Dagani 1994a, b). The 16-4 vote against naming elements after living people ruled out seaborgium for element 106. The Committee’s recommendations and the vote are shown in Table 1. As Anthony Arduengo, one of the American Committee members, pointed out (Freemantle and Dagani 1994): “Discoverers don’t have a right to name an element. They have a right to suggest a name. And, of course, we didn’t infringe on that at all.”
Table 2

The Recommendations of IUPAC-CNIC 1994 (from Freemantle and Dagani 1994)

Atomic number

Proposed name

Voting in favour (out of 20)

101

Mendelevium

20

102

Nobelium

20

103

Lawrencium

20

104

Dubnium

19

105

Joliotium

18

106

Rutherfordium

18

107

Bohrium

20

108

Hahnium

19

109

Meitnerium

20

The choice of names was accepted unanimously by IUPAC’s Bureau (executive body) at a meeting in Belgium on 17 & 18 September 1994, subject to ratification by the IUPAC Council when they were to meet in August 1995. The reception by the heavy-ion community was extremely negative.

It was the rejection of the name seaborgium that rallied opposition in the United States. Seaborg promoted his own name by saying: “In the case of element 106, this would be the first time in history that the acknowledged and uncontested discoverers of an element are denied the privilege of naming it” (Freemantle and Dagani 1994). Seaborg and his colleagues also argued that the precedent had been set by einsteinium and fermium, however, it was pointed out by Committee members that Einstein and Fermi were both deceased before the element names were actually approved.

The ACS Committee on Nomenclature unanimously voted to reject the IUPAC recommendations and to reaffirm its support for its own slate of names. In a letter to Chemical and Engineering News, Huheey supported the ACS position, commenting that (Huheey 1995): “… IUPAC does not have the authority, rules, nor necessary procedures to arrogate unto itself such decisions.” In a following letter, Tripathi (1995) provided a voice of reason [20]:

I do not think that we are setting a good example by disputing the recommendation of IUPAC, a body that we all agreed would settle such disputes. For this reason alone, we should all come together and accept the recommendations of the commission without much argument-even if it hurts some of our sentiments and even egos.

IUPAC bowed to pressure and the IUPAC Bureau announced that the recommendations were provisional and that the final decision would be taken by the General Assembly in 1997 (Zamaraev 1996). A compromise list was put forward (see Table 3) in August 1997 and approved by the CNIC (Anon. 1997) and rapidly endorsed by the IUPAC Bureau and ratified by the IUPAC Council (Freemantle 1997). The precedent had been accepted: from now on, newly-discovered elements could be named after contemporary scientists.
Table 3

A comparison of the three sets of names for elements 104–109

Element

U.S. proposal

IUPAC 1994

IUPAC 1997

104

Rutherfordium

Dubnium

Rutherfordium

105

Hahnium

Joliotium

Dubnium

106

Seaborgium

Rutherfordium

Seaborgium

107

Nielsbohrium

Bohrium

Bohrium

108

Hassium

Hahnium

Hassium

109

Meitnerium

Meitnerium

Meitnerium

Commentary

Fortunately, the route for naming newly-synthesized elements is now clear and internationally accepted. Each decision will abide by the following procedure (Kaesz 2007):
  1. 1.

    Analysis of the claim by IUPAC/IUPAP;

     
  2. 2.

    Publication of the analysis in Pure and Applied Chemistry;

     
  3. 3.

    Invitation of the credited group to propose a name;

     
  4. 4.

    Provisional recommendation presenting the proposed name;

     
  5. 5.

    Public review;

     
  6. 6.

    Final approval by the IUPAC Council;

     
  7. 7.

    Final publication in Pure and Applied Chemistry.

     

The only injustice that remains is the lack of an element named after Moseley.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chemistry Department, Sir Wilfred Grenfell CollegeMemorial UniversityCorner BrookCanada

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