Elements Get Final Names
By MALCOLM W. BROWNE
c.1997 New York Times
After more than three years of sometimes acrimonious debate across the borders of many nations, an international body of chemists has reached a tentative agreement on the names to be bestowed upon six new chemical elements.
The elements themselves, numbers 104 through 109 on the periodic table, were created by accelerator laboratories in the United States, Germany, and Russia over the last two decades and have little significance for non-scientists. Only a few atoms of each of these elements ever existed, and none survived after its creation for more than a few seconds before decaying radioactively into atomic debris.
But the naming of a chemical element is influenced by national pride, professional rivalry and personal sensitivities; the picking of a single name can provoke as much back-room bickering and bargaining as the selection of an international beauty queen.
The final court of appeals in this process is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with member chemists from about 80 countries. Within the Union, factions representing the United States, Germany, Russia and several other nations have bitterly disagreed about names.
A particularly sharp disagreement began three years ago when the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., backed by the American Chemical Society, tentatively named element 106 seaborgium, with the chemical symbol Sg. The name honored Glenn T. Seaborg, an American chemist and Nobel laureate, whose team created 10 new elements during and after World War II. In 1940, Seaborg's research group at Berkeley used an accelerator to make neptunium, the first element heavier than uranium (Before neptunium, the only element existing solely as a laboratory product was technetium, which is No. 43 on the periodic table. It was created in 1937 by the fusion of atomic nuclei.).
Seaborg's team went on to create plutonium, the element fueling the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, and eight other artificial elements. The American Chemical Society believed that international confirmation of the name seaborgium would be mere formality, but instead the international chemists' union provisionally named Element 106 rutherfordium honoring New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford.
Adding insult to injury, in the view of the Berkeley group, the international union proposed naming element 104 dubnium, recognizing achievements in nuclear physics by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna, Russia. The Berkeley scientists and many other American physicists are skeptical of some of the claims made by the Dubna laboratory to having created new elements.
After years of debate, the international union came up last month [Jan 1997] with a compromise list that most American chemists deem acceptable. David F. Eaton, a chemist at DuPont Corp. who headed the American delegation throughout the bargaining, said in an interview that all the American laboratories involved in the dispute were satisfied.
Subject to confirmation by the union's members at a meeting in Geneva next August , these will be the names of the six new elements: Element 104, Rutherfordium (symbol Rf); Element 105, Dubnium (symbol Db); Element 106, Seaborgium (symbol Sg); Element 107, Bohrioum (symbol Bh); Element 108, Hassium (symbol Hs), bol Mt).
(Bohrium takes its name from Niels Bohr, a Dane, who was a founder of quantum physics. Hassium is the Latin name for the German province Hesse, the seat of the laboratory where elements 109 and 110 were created, as well as a single atom of element 112 one year ago . Meitnerium is named for the Austrian-born physicist Lise Meitner.)
Dropped from the union's previous list of provisional names are joliotium for Element 105, for the French physicist Frederick Jolie-Curie, and hahnium for Element 108, honoring the German physicist Otto Hahn. "Fortunately, However," Eaton said, "we still have some unnamed elements to play with: Elements 110, 111 and 112."
All three were created in Darmstadt, Germany, by the Society for Heavy Ion Research, and by tradition, the creator or discoverer of an element has the privilege of proposing its name. Consequently, hahnium has a chance of rejoining the periodic table, and even the French joliotium might make into the pantheon.
Final settlement of the issue will be a relief for the publishers of chemistry textbooks and scientific papers around the world; in the current confusion, five different versions of the periodic table are in circulation.
"I think we're seeing real progress," Eaton said.
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