With the naming of four new chemical elements, it’s worth reflecting on their long and interesting history – and you can become a pub quiz champion on the topic in the process. Indeed, while the periodic table may sound like a rather dry topic, it’s actually a subject packed full of the weird and wonderful.
The concept of discrete atoms was proposed by Robert Boyle in 1661, but in the first chemistry textbook, Traité élémentaire de chimie, published in that portentous, revolutionary year of 1789, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier listed a number of the chemical elements, including 27 known today. They included hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, iron, zinc, mercury and gold.
Not that it did him any good. Lavoisier was guillotined during the Reign of Terror in 1794, the judge allegedly commenting “La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes” (“The Republic does not need scientists or chemists”).
It was Lavoisier’s contemporary, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin who not only discovered the element beryllium in 1798 but also in 1803 synthesised the oxide of another new element. Finding it to be volatile, he gave it the baffling name “ptene”, derived from the Greek word for winged. Fortunately for posterity, this element is now known as osmium (from the ozone-like smell of the oxide) and so far, no unpronounceable name has been adopted for any element.
118: the magic number?
Since the start of the 19th century, the number of known elements has steadily risen, reaching its present total of 118. Uranium (number 92) is the heaviest element present in the Earth in an appreciable amount and all successive elements have been made in scientific laboratories.
Until now, this quartet have been known by their atomic numbers of 113, 115, 117 and 118 – or the temporary names of ununtrium (symbol Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus), and ununoctium (Uuo) respectively. The proposed names now are respectively nihonium (symbol Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og).
Most elements have names ending in “–ium”. All but one of those are metals or metalloids; the one exception being helium, first discovered in the sun’s spectrum in 1868 and given its name from the Greek word for the sun – ἥλιος (helios) – before helium was identified on Earth (1895) and the character of the element could be known.
Two of these new elements are given names ending in –ium, though no one yet knows if they are metallic or not; the names of the other two are given endings appropriate to their positions in the Periodic Table. Tennessine is assigned to Group 17 (VIIB), together with the halogens fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine and astatine. Oganesson is in Group 18 (0), together with helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon.
The right to give a name to a newly discovered element is prestigious and has traditionally been seen to be in the hands of the discoverers. Four countries have contributed to the discoveries of new elements during the past half century. The work of the German GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research at Darmstadt in discovering elements 107-112 – bohrium, meitnerium, hassium, darmstadtium, roentgenium and copernicum (as well as important confirmatory work on other elements) – is commemorated in their names.
As the leading German researcher Sigurd Hofmann commented:
So don’t expect Boaty McBoatfacium just yet.
What’s in a name?
Of the four newest elements, two names are linked to Russia, one to Japan and one to the US, reflecting the international nature of the synthesis of these new man-made elements. But things have not always been like that.
Originally, this kind of nuclear synthesis was only carried out in the US at the University of California, Berkeley, between 1940 and 1955, so they gave names to elements 93 (neptunium) to 101 (mendelevium). But the discovery of the next few elements was dominated by controversy, as both American and Soviet researchers were active, both schools claiming priority in discovery. The Transfermium Wars had begun, and it was not until the beginning of a new millennium that these names were sorted out by an international committee.
Happily, international teams now work together to discover new chemical elements. Discoverers have often named a new element after their country, as with polonium (by Marie Curie) and americium, for example. Nihonium isn’t the first time that an element has taken its name from Japan. In 1909, the Japanese chemist Masataka Ogawa thought he had discovered element 43, and suggested that it be called nipponium.
But he hadn’t, so it wasn’t; we now know element 43 as technetium and it was not discovered until 1937. But it looks as if Ogawa had discovered a new element, rhenium, which was not recognised by others until 1925.
The whirligig of time
Indeed, over the past centuries, many claims have been made in error for the discovery of elements; in most cases these have been innocent mistakes, but a 1999 claim for the synthesis of elements 116 and 118 is now recognised to have involved fraud on the part of one of the scientists involved.
Not the least achievement of those who name compounds has been to set right historical injustices. Lise Meitner was along with her colleague Otto Hahn a co-discoverer of nuclear fission, but did not share the award of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this; it went solely to Hahn.
In 1994, however, IUPAC recommended the adoption of the names hahnium and meitenerium for elements 108 and 109 respectively, commemorating them both. In the event, element 108 was named hessium, but element 109 was officially named meitnerium.
As Feste remarks in Twelfth Night, “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”
All you have to do now is start revising.