Nationalism and Chemistry

By: Dr.Badruddin Khan

When Humphry Davy, a British Chemist, electrolyzed molten potassium hydroxide in 1807 to extract the first of the alkali metals, Davy obtained such acclaim for his extraction of these metals from their salts that the following rhyme was written about him by E.C.Bentley;
Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy
Lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium

When Napoleon, the then French ruler, came to know of this news, he became very angry as to why the French chemists had not been the first to do this. Interestingly, it was a coincidence that Napoleon's dream was fulfilled in 1939 when none less than a French chemist, Marguerite Perry, not only isolated the alkali metal that exists only as radioactive isotopes, but also named it Francium after his native country, France ,and consoled the soul of the then deceased emperor.

If we think about the history of both the underlying basis and the controversies behind names and symbols of some of the chemical elements, the facts and figures themselves will speak about the factuality and the reality. In the early days of chemistry a scientist who happened to discover a new element, had the honor of naming it too. But now discoverers/researchers are required to submit their choices for a name to an international Scientific Body called the "International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry", IUPAC, to have a new element properly named and placed on the periodic table due to contradictory claims of active research groups and tug of war between them for the sake of getting mileage and recognition out of their claimed contributions, if any.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is an international non-governmental organization established in 1919 devoted to the advancement of chemistry. It is most well known as the recognized authority in developing standards for the naming of the chemical elements and their compounds, through its Interdivisional Committee on Nomenclature and Symbols (IUPAC nomenclature). It is a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU). In addition to nomenclature guidelines, the IUPAC sets standards for international spelling in the event of a dispute; for example, it ruled that international aluminium is preferable to the American aluminum and American sulfur is preferable to the British sulphur.

As researchers continue to discover elements and expand the periodic table, the job of deciding on a name and symbol is becoming not only an increasingly complex task but also a sensitive issue. The convention that an element be named by its discoverer(s), resulted in a nationalistic dispute between laboratories attempting to synthesize the elements first, thus earning naming rights for having "discovered" them. Therefore, in this context discovery is synonymous with first synthesis. The controversy arose when multiple groups claimed to have discovered the same elements. Usually the Russians were the first to make the claim, and the Americans would dispute, claiming that the research could not be independently verified.
The four groups which were involved in the conflict over element naming were:
*An American group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
*A Russian group at Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna
*A German group at the Gesellschaft fÃ?r Schwerionenforschung (GSI) in Darmstadt
*The IUPAC Commission on Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry, which introduced its own proposal to the IUPAC General Assembly.
While the preferred names for the elements by the American group for elements having atomic numbers: 104, 105, and 106, were: rutherfordium, hafnium, and seaborgium respectively, the preferred names for the elements having atomic numbers: 104 and 105 by the Russian group were: kurchatovium, and nielsbohrium respectively. However the preferred names for the elements having atomic numbers: 107, 108, and 109, by the German group were: nielsbohrium, hassium, and meitnerium.

As per IUPAC proposal element 104 was to be named after Igor Kurchatov, father of the Russian atomic bomb, and this was the obvious reason that the name was objectionable to the Americans. The American name to 106 was objectionable to some because Glenn T. Seaborg was still alive and hence his name could not be used for an element in accordance with the IUPAC rules. While it is commonly stated that Seaborgium is the only element to have been named after a living person, this is not entirely true as both einsteinium and fermium were proposed as names of new elements discovered by Albert Ghiorso, Seaborg and the other American co-discoverers of those elements while Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein were still living. However, the discovery of these elements and their names were kept secret under Cold War era nuclear secrecy rules, and thus the names could not become known either to the public or the broader scientific community until after the deaths of both Fermi and Einstein.

In 1994, the IUPAC Commission on Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry proposed the names: dubnium, joliotium, rutherfordium, bohrium, hahnium, and meitnerium for elements having atomic numbers:104,105, 106, 107,108, and109 respectively in an attempt to resolve the dispute by replacing the name for 104 with one honoring the Dubna research center, and not naming 106 after Seaborg.

However, this solution drew objections from the American Chemical Society (ACS) on the grounds that the right of the American group to propose the name for element 106 was not in question and that group should have the right to name the element whatever it wanted to. Indeed, under the most compromising intentions, IUPAC decided that the credit for the discovery of element 106 should be shared between both Berkeley and Dubna but the Dubna group did not oblige IUPAC by coming forward with a name for this element. In addition, given that many American books had already used Rutherfordium and Hahnium for 104 and 105, the ACS objected to those names being used for other elements. Seaborg commented wryly at a talk in 1995 that "There has been some reluctance on the part of the Commission for Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry to accept the name after me because I'm still alive and they can prove it, they say." Finally in 1997, the names agreed upon on the 39th IUPAC General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, were: 104 - rutherfordium; 105 - dubnium; 106 - seaborgium; 107 - bohrium; 108 - hassium, and 109 - meitnerium.
In 1999, Glenn T. Seaborg died, still disputing the name change for At.No.105 and adamant about it remaining known as Hahnium. His reason concerning Dubna in Russia was his belief that they had made a false claim about discovering the element for which they had been credited. Interestingly and understably when the Dubna group finally did release some additional data on the experiment, Seaborg was quick to claim that it was a misreading of the decay pattern of their product. Even then, the Dubna group still refused to remove their claim. Some people in the Berkeley group and some others still refer to it as Hahnium.

The list of chemical elements named after people with symbol and atomic numbers given in brackets are as: bohrium (Bh, 107) in recognition of Niels Bohr; curium (Cm, 96) in recognition of Pierre and Marie Curie; einsteinium (Es, 99) in recognition of Albert Einstein; fermium (Fm, 100) in recognition of Enrico Fermi; gallium (Ga, 31) , although named after Gallia (Latin for France), the discoverer of the metal Lecoq de Boisbaudran subtly attached an association with his name. Lecoq (rooster) in Latin is gallus; lawrencium (Lr, 103) in recognition of Ernest Lawrence; meitnerium (Mt, 109) in recognition of Lise Meitner; mendelevium (Md, 101) in recognition of Dmitri Mendeleev; nobelium (No, 102) in recognition of Alfred Nobel; roentgenium (Rg, 111) in recognition of Wilhelm Roentgen; rutherfordium (Rf, 104) in recognition of Ernest Rutherford, and seaborgium (Sg, 106) in recognition of Glenn T. Seaborg.

The element naming controversy that surrounded elements 104 to 109 saw two further names derived from people gain partial acceptance. Neither was or is accepted by IUPAC. hahnium (Hh, 105) in recognition of Otto Hahn, now known as dubnium, and kurchatovium (Ku, 104) in recognition of Igor Kurchatov, now known as rutherfordium.

The elements named after mythical characters are: niobium (Nb, 41) for Niobe, a mortal woman in Greek mythology; promethium (Pm, 61) for Prometheus, a Titan from Greek mythology; tantalum (Ta, 73) for Tantalus, from Greek mythology; thorium (Th, 90) for Thor, the Norse god of thunder; titanium (Ti, 22) for the Titans, from Greek mythology, and vanadium (V, 23) for Scandinavian goddess Vanadis (Freyja). Many chemical elements are named after astronomical bodies which are named after Greek or Roman deities. It is interesting to note that Gadolinium (Gd, 64) has got its name from the mineral gadolinite, which in turn is named after the Finnish chemist and geologist Johan Gadolin and Samarium (Sm, 62) is believed to be named after the mineral samarskite which in turn is named after Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets, a Russian mine official.

Many elements have been named after places such as: americium for the Americas; berkelium for the city of Berkeley, California, home of the University of California; californium for both the state of California and University of California, Berkeley; copper is probably named after Cyprus; darmstadtium for Darmstadt, Germany; dubnium for Dubna, Russia; erbium for Ytterby, Sweden; europium for Europe; francium for France; gallium for Gallia, Latin for France(Frenchman Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who was the discoverer of the metal, named it after his country and also subtly for himself. Lecoq (rooster) in Latin is gallus); germanium for Germany; hafnium for Hafnia, Latin for Copenhagen; hassium for Hesse, Germany; holmium for Holmia, Latin for Stockholm; lutetium for Lutetia, Latin for Paris; magnesium for Magnesia, Thessaly, Greece; polonium for Poland; rhenium for Rhenus, Latin for Rhine; ruthenium for Ruthenia, Latin for Rus' (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus); scandium for Scandia, Latin for Scandinavia; strontium for Strontian, Scotland; terbium for Ytterby, Sweden; thulium for Thule, a mythical island in the far north, perhaps Scandinavia; ytterbium again for Ytterby, Sweden, and yttrium still again for the same Ytterby, Sweden.
It is worth noting that four elements namely: Erbium, Terbium, Ytterbium and Yttrium, have been named after Ytterby, a small place in Sweden.
While concluding this wright up it may be added that some elements have been named after astronomical objects too, for example, cerium for Ceres; helium for Helios, the Greek name for the Sun; neptunium for Neptune; palladium for Pallas; plutonium for Pluto; selenium for Selene, the Greek name for the Moon; tellurium for Tellus, the Latin name for the Earth; uranium for Uranus, and mercury for Mercury , which was itself named after the Roman god Mercury.

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