Let’s flip over the periodic table to peek at its dark side.
The iconic periodic table. Unlike our lab benches and desk tops, it’s so tidy. All the elements that comprise the universe, tucked into boxes neatly stacked atop one another. I wonder if that isn’t at least part of its appeal, its sturdy and uncomplicated construction. But a closer look reveals this upright and dignified home for the elements sits on a rubbish heap, surrounded by dashed dreams, wrecked reputations and the wraiths of elements that never were.
Enough phantom elements have been ‘found’ to fill the periodic table nearly twice over again. Historians of chemistry Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna list1 more than two hundred such elements by name in their exhaustive history, The Lost Elements. I will confess that, in spite of a fangirl crush on Marie Curie of a half century’s duration, I’ve never dreamed of discovering my own element. Perhaps it’s the radiation poisoning that eventually killed Marie that has put me off, or the thought of all those tons of pitchblende ore she processed — by hand — in an unheated shed barely able to keep the weather out. Or perhaps it’s these poignant tales of element hunters whose hopes were dashed again and again.
Some of these hopeful hunters were almost as ephemeral as the elements they purported to have discovered. In 1820, various chemical news sources reported that a Mr Mills had sent the tale of his eponymous element aurum millium (gold of Mills) to an unnamed source in Baltimore2. Nothing else of Mills’s career as a chemist is known, not even his first name. And it’s not just unknown chemists seeking fame and fortune that have foundered on the rocky edges of the periodic table. Renowned chemists have had their dreams of claiming a square on the table shattered, from Anders Ångström to Dmitri Mendeleev himself. Enrico Fermi won a Nobel prize, in part, for elements he thought he’d discovered, but hadn’t3. Those “new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation” were in fact fission products of uranium, isotopes of already discovered elements. Some, like William Crookes, could not let go of the dream, clinging to thinner and thinner shreds of evidence, until his dogged promotion of ‘victorium’ was soundly defeated. And some have eschewed data entirely and spun wild fantasies.
Tales from the flip side of the periodic table can be both riveting and dark, and occasionally darkly funny. There are the elements of irony: verium and dubhium — the story of the first veritably lost to time and the latter put forward by Josef Maria Eder on extraordinarily dubious grounds. Or consider administratium and jargonium, which both sound like the punch line to a joke: the first one is4, the second is not — or at least not originally. Amateur chemist Henry Sorby gave the name jargonium to the element he thought he’d identified in a sample of the mineral jargonite. Thoron (which is in fact an isotope of radon, 220Rn) and metargon (an additional noble gas between xenon and radon that William Ramsay, among others, thought he’d discovered), sound more like comic-book superheroes than chemical elements. Some phantom elements were pure fiction: damarium, an apparent April fools’ joke published in Chemiker Zeitung took on a life of its own, being reported to scientific societies as an actual discovery. One element, or at least an isotope, drifted from fiction into reality — quadium, the highly unstable 4H, came to life first on the pages of The Mouse That Roared in 1955, but was finally synthesized almost fifty years later by bombarding tritium with deuterium.
The history of new elements is as much about the names as it is about fundamental discoveries in chemistry and physics. The potential for scientific immortality in an element’s name eclipses that available by almost any other route, short of landing an eponymous constant or unit. The names matter — though beryllium by its other name, glucinium, tastes just as sweet. To successfully identify a new element means the chance to memorialize someone or some place of your choosing. And those few scientists that have an eponymous element will always be remembered on the wall of every chemistry classroom in the world — though this honour usually relies on the choice of another element discoverer. Named compounds and reactions do also exist of course, but they might be superseded by yet better synthetic technology, whereas the periodic table is chemistry’s immovable foundation. With the stakes this high, it’s not surprising how many will risk their reputations. This raises the question, given the difficulties that have arisen and the inherent potential for mischief, why do we give elements trivial names at all?
This elemental name game is not for the faint of heart; more people have lost than won a coveted spot on the table — and weirdly, it’s a game you can lose without even playing. Consider the tale of elements 43, 75 and 113. In 1904, Ramsay, who pulled an entire column of Mendeleev’s table from thin air — helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon — won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That same year a not-so-young Japanese chemist, Masataka Ogawa, travelled to England to work with Sir Ramsay to learn to hunt elements1. Ogawa succeeded in isolating two unknown elements from mineral samples. He identified one as eka-manganese, element 43, and at Ramsay’s urging named it nipponium, to recognize 日本 (‘Nippon’, or Japan)5.
Ogawa returned to Japan to great acclaim. He soon identified what he believed to be not one, but two other new elements, the second of which appeared radioactive6. He also reported producing pure nipponium metal in gram quantities. But in 1930, shortly before Ogawa’s death, an analysis revealed that the metal he had so carefully isolated back in 1908 was not element 43, but element 75, rhenium, which sits below it in the periodic table, the discovery of which had since been reported by Ida and Walter Noddack and Hans Berg, in 1925. The identification of Mendeleev’s eka-manganese would wait until 1937, when technetium was found in a piece of molybdenum foil — which had been bombarded with deuterium — retrieved from a retired cyclotron. Nipponium and the other elemental phantoms proposed by Ogawa faded into obscurity, at least for a time.
A century after Ogawa travelled to London to begin his ultimately unsuccessful search for new elements, a team of Japanese physicists produced element 113, and by IUPAC rules were invited to suggest a name7. To reduce confusion, International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) guidelines do not allow an element name to be re-used, no matter how much time has elapsed or even if the name was previously assigned to a phantom element, so the Japanese team could not use nipponium. Following Ogawa’s lead, however, and explicitly to honour his work, they chose nihonium, drawing from an alternative pronunciation of 日本, ‘Nihon’8.
The IUPAC’s eminently reasonable prohibition on not reusing previously proposed element names — although some exceptions can be found — means, for example, that Otto Hahn, the Curie-Joliots and Isaac Newton have lost their chance to get on the table, the last thanks to Mendeleev himself9. Under the current guidelines a scientist could potentially spike a rival’s chances of having an element named for them by using it widely in the literature. What might that mean for Albert Ghiorso, who co-discovered a record twelve elements (95 through 106), or for cosmologist Stephen Hawking, both of whom have had their names attached to phantom elements?
Now that oganesson has completed the seventh period on the table, a group at Riken in Japan is bombarding curium with vanadium in a bid to break into the new period10 with element 119. Is there a limit to the number of elements that exist or can be observed? Although physicists suspect that ununennium (119) and unbinilium (120) are the last elements that can be created and observed using current technology, for more than 80 years theorists have explored possible upper bounds to the periodic table11,12. Some of these theories have been more grounded than others: at a 2004 speculative physics meeting in New Mexico, physicist Petar Anastasovski proposed not only that Z = 145 could be an upper bound, but that it alone among the elements might have anti-gravitic properties. And if unquadpentium could propel us to the stars, suggests Anastasovski, who better to honour than Hawking with its name13. Would IUPAC make an exception for a singular mention in the literature? Would chemists and physicists be willing to wait for unquadpentium to show up on the scene to honour Hawking? Or has the chance for one of history’s greatest minds to be immortalized on the periodic table been derailed by a fey physicist?
Ghiorso’s chances of having an eponymous element were imperilled under circumstances more tragic than bizarre14. The stories of the phantom elements are, for the most part, cautionary tales of scientific misadventures. We read them and wince, perhaps imagine ourselves at each misstep or wonder how we might have interpreted ambiguous data, and forgive the frailties of our colleagues. But at least once, a trumpeted elemental discovery15 seems to have been deliberate fraud — the unforgiveable sin of science16. In 1996, Victor Ninov, part of the team at the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt that uncovered the traces of elements 110, 111 and 112, left for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory wielding his computational and mechanical expertise to coax their aging equipment to make heavier elements still. Their target in April 1999 was element 118, which theorist Robert Smolańczuk’s calculations suggested could be made by accelerating krypton nuclei into lead. Ninov’s analysis of the binary data showed three fission events that could only be attributed to the as-yet-undiscovered ununoctium, the details uncannily close to Smolańczuk’s predictions.
The Berkeley group proposed naming their newly created thirteenth element after Ghiorso, a leading member of the team. It would prove an unlucky choice: when no other group could reproduce their results, and when they themselves could not reproduce them, researchers dug into the original binary data only to find that the events attributed to element 118 weren’t there. The subsequent investigation concluded that they had been inserted into the text file post hoc, and that Ninov was the culprit. He was dismissed from Berkeley, though always maintained his innocence. Five years later, a joint team of Russian and US scientists would observe three events from the collision of californium with calcium, evidence for the creation of element 118 which they would christen oganesson to honour Yuri Oganessian, leader of the group. Ironically, data that would help confirm their work would come from the Berkeley group.
I wonder if the opportunity for naming elements raises the stakes so high that scientific fraud becomes enticing, or at least that mischief gets made. How much would the history, particularly the later history of the discovery of the elements, change if systematic names were used, rather than eponyms, if not for all elements, at least for new ones? The IUPAC guidelines cover up to element 999 (enenenium, Eee), so there is plenty of breathing room. But the assignment of trivial element names is clearly anything but trivial, even in IUPAC’s opinion.
Compare the naming of elements with the naming of natural products. The IUPAC rules consider trivial names ephemeral, to be replaced by a systematic name once well characterized, though in practice, both versions will be in circulation in the chemical literature. The precise opposite is true of the elements, where the trivial name will be enshrined and the systematic name is truly ephemeral. Once the IUPAC name has been announced with all due fanfare, the systematic name falls rapidly out of use, which is perhaps all to the good considering the tongue-twisting nature of those names cobbled together from Latin- and Greek-derived numerical building blocks.
So why are we so attached to the names of our elements? Perhaps more chemists harbour dreams of discovering strange new worlds than might admit it — if not literal ones, then the metaphorical islands of nuclear stability. But given the labour involved in isolating a new element from tons of ores or of combing the data from a particle accelerator for the decay patterns that signal a new element, I wonder if it’s not a touch of parental pride and privilege that keeps us mired in tradition. We have laboured to give birth to these elements as much as the universe has, perhaps more so, and we want history to be clear about their genesis.