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History of science: Chemists behaving badly

Nature volume 515, pages 3435 (06 November 2014) | Download Citation

Theodore Gray revels in the ego-ridden story of the elements that never were.

The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table's Shadow Side

Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna. Oxford University Press: 2014. 9780199383344

Rarely has so much been written so authoritatively about things that do not exist. In their marvellous The Lost Elements, chemists Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna detail the 'discovery' of dozens of elements that turned out not to be.

Chemists who in 1926 claimed — erroneously — that they had discovered element 61: left to right, J. Allen Harris, Leonard Yntema and B. Smith Hopkins. Image: Univ. Illinois Archives

Some (such as polymnestum, claimed as an element by the wealthy — and sloppy — Victorian landowner Alexander Pringle) were the product of nothing more than poor measurements of impure samples. Many were products of wishful thinking, vanity, jealousy, pride, greed — name your sin, and someone has probably falsely claimed the discovery of an element because of it. But all shared the same fate: to be brought down, more often than not, by scientific rivals only too glad to point out the follies of their enemies. The false discoveries were announced with great fanfare, but the retractions, if they came at all, were often obfuscating. For example, the retraction of one candidate for element 61, florentium, was published “in a minor journal of the Vatican State ... for the most part, written in Latin”.

Why such a parade of professors behaving badly? If you discover an element, you name it, and thereby insert yourself into this single greatest of all collections. Since the nineteenth century, when the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev formulated the first version of the modern periodic table, it has been known that the number of elements is strictly limited. Generations of chemists could see the slots being filled as they grew inexorably older, and the temptations were too much for some.

“Name your sin, and someone has probably falsely claimed the discovery of an element because of it.”

As The Lost Elements reveals, one of these was Luigi Rolla, the discoverer of the ill-fated florentium. Head of chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy, in the early twentieth century, his contributions to rare-earth chemistry are indisputable. But things started to unravel in 1926 when, fearing he might be scooped in the discovery of element 61, he announced his 'find'. That year, a rival group at the University of Illinois, headed by B. Smith Hopkins, announced its discovery of the element, dubbing it illinium. But there were other complications. New Hampshire chemist Charles James, the expert on rare earth elements asked to review Hopkins's paper, had also been working on element 61; and out of deference to the Illinois team, published his own paper after theirs.

In the event, none of these players had actually pinned the element down (although this did not stop Rolla from systematically destroying the career of his former colleague Lorenzo Fernandes, who had lobbied for retraction). As is now known, element 61 — promethium — is a short-lived radioactive element that cannot occur naturally to any appreciable degree. The rivers of academic blood spilled over it were inevitable, simply because its discovery was essentially impossible before the era of synthetic elements.

Several elements have legitimately been discovered by their spectral lines, most notably helium — so named because the first evidence of its existence came from its presence in the atmosphere of the Sun. Less well known is the 'discovery' that helium could be separated into two different elements with slightly different spectral lines and densities. This claim, made by Carl David Tolmé Runge and Heinrich Gustav Johannes Kayser in the late nineteenth century, might have represented the discovery of isotopes 20 years ahead of its time. However, although Runge and Kayser were expert spectroscopists, they were not very good pressurologists. What they had in fact discovered is that the spectrum of a gas depends on its pressure. So by measuring what was actually the same substance under slightly different pressures, they were misled about both its density and its spectral lines. Thus died the element asterium.

This staggeringly comprehensive, well-researched book weighs in at more than 500 pages, yet does not get bogged down in minutiae. Perhaps the greatest value in The Lost Elements is its examination of scientists as all too human, with lives as convoluted as those of any poet or monarch. One Josiah Wedgwood, for example, proposed in 1790 to have discovered evidence of a new element in an interesting clay found near the recently settled penal colonies of Australia. That claim turned out to be mistaken, but playing with clay was not a complete waste of time for Mr Wedgwood, who found success making pottery instead. Yes, that Wedgwood.

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  1. Theodore Gray is the co-founder of Wolfram Research, founder of Touchpress, and proprietor of His latest book is Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything, also available in an interactive iPad edition.

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Correspondence to Theodore Gray.

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