Reporting the discovery of new chemical elements: working in different worlds, only 25 years apart


In his account of scientific revolutions, Thomas Kuhn suggests that after a revolutionary change of theory, it is as if scientists are working in a different world. In this paper, we aim to show that the notion of world change is insightful. We contrast the reporting of the discovery of neon in 1898 with the discovery of hafnium in 1923. The one discovery was made when elements were identified by their atomic weight; the other discovery was made after scientists came to classify elements by their atomic number. By considering two instances of the reporting of the discovery of a new chemical element 25 years apart, we argue that it becomes clear how chemists can be said to have been responding to different worlds as a result of the change in the concept of a chemical element. They (1) saw, (2) did, and (3) reported different things as they conducted their research on the new chemical elements.

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  1. 1.

    Paul Hoyningen-Huene provides a useful reminder that we need to distinguish between two different meanings of “world” in Structure, the world in itself and the phenomenal world (see Hoyningen-Huene 1989/1993, 31). Hoyningen-Huene devotes a whole chapter to the distinction. Ian Hacking also tries to provide a sympathetic gloss on the notion of living and working in a new world after a scientific revolution (see Hacking1993).

  2. 2.

    In a recent article, Paul Hoyningen-Huene lists the various titles that Kuhn had given his final manuscript over the years as he worked on it. Hoyningen-Huene claims that he (that is, Paul) “liked [The Plurality of Worlds] best because it picks out what I called the plurality-of-phenomenological-worlds thesis, which I assessed as a ‘fundamental assumption of Kuhn’s theory’ (Hoyningen-Huene 1993, p. 26)” (see Hoyningen-Huene 2015, 190).

  3. 3.

    The discovery of the noble gases was quite significant, even threatening to some extent. Scerri notes that “once [the noble gases] had begun to be discovered, it was immediately understood that the existence of [these] gases might pose a threat to the periodic system. Indeed, a failure to incorporate them might have led to an abandonment of the periodic system, regardless of the earlier successes achieved” (Scerri 2007, 151). Scerri’s discussion of “the public announcement of the argon problem” provides insight into the sorts of challenges that argon seemed to raise for chemists (see Scerri 2007, 152–154). For Mendeleev’s reaction to the unexpected discovery of argon, see Scerri (2007, 154–155). Mendeleev described the discovery and accommodation of the noble gases into the periodic table as “a ‘critical test’” of the periodic system (see Scerri 2007, 156).

  4. 4.

    Cyril Baly is the person, though he is identified merely as Mr. Baly, except at the end of the article where he is identified as Mr. E. C. C Baly. Interestingly, Baly may have separated isotopes of oxygen before the realization that they existed (see Donnan 1948, 9). Baly is not the only person to be mentioned by name in the report for their contribution to this discovery. William Hampson is also mentioned, having “placed at [Ramsey and Travers’] disposal his resources for preparing large quantities of liquid air” (see Ramsey and Travers 1898, 437).

  5. 5.

    Incidentally, Karl Manne Siegbahn had also weighed in on an earlier claim by a French team to have discovered the missing element with atomic number 72. Siegbahn was “a leading spectroscopist who had further developed Moseley’s methods … [he] examined the [French team’s] plates and concluded that no lines were actually present” (see Scerri 2013, 88).

  6. 6.

    Interestingly, the discovery of hafnium gave rise to a somewhat lengthy and acrimonious priority dispute, first between Coster and Hevesy and the French team, discussed earlier, and then between Coster and Hevesy and Alexander Scott (for the details of this, see Scerri 2013, 91–95).

  7. 7.

    The significance of the discovery of isotopes to chemistry cannot be overestimated. Thornton and Burdette argue that “the natural breakpoint between chemistry and physics is best seen, described, and understood through the discovery and elucidation of isotopy in the early twentieth century” (2017, 120). They suggest that there were possible alternative courses of development that could have unfolded, courses different from the actual course that chemistry took.

  8. 8.

    As Helge Kragh, Eric Scerri, and Thornton and Burdette have all pointed out, chemistry was profoundly shaped by interactions with physicists, and developments in physics, during this period (see Kragh 2000, 448; Scerri 2007, Chapter 7; Thornton and Burdette 2017). For example, the way of reporting the discovery of an element in 1923 would not have been possible without the contributions of physicists to the field of chemistry in the intervening years.

  9. 9.

    Scerri provides a detailed account for some of the challenges that Lord Rayleigh and William Ramsey encountered as they tried to determine the atomic weight of argon, the first of the noble gases to be discovered (see Scerri 2007, 151–152).

  10. 10.

    It is easy to exaggerate the continuity through the revolutionary conceptual change in chemistry. As Thornton and Burdette note, since 2009, the IUPAC “have updated the atomic weights of a [number] of elements from a constant single value to a range. The weight range reflects the variations in element isotopic compositions found in terrestrial materials” (Thornton and Burdette 2017, 133). They add that “it does not appear that … anyone working in the early twentieth century … anticipated atomic weights becoming ranges, rather than specific values” (see Thornton and Burdette 2017, 133).


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We thank Eric Scerri for feedback on an earlier draft.


Funding was provided by Aarhus Universitets Forskningsfond (Grant No: AUFF-E-2017-FLS-7-3).

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Correspondence to K. Brad Wray.

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Wray, K.B., Andersen, L.E. Reporting the discovery of new chemical elements: working in different worlds, only 25 years apart. Found Chem 22, 137–146 (2020).

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  • Chemical element
  • Discovery
  • Thomas Kuhn
  • Neon
  • Hafnium
  • World changes
  • Theory change