The Sciences

The Year in Science: Chemistry 1997

What's in a Name?

By Jeffrey WintersJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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Unlike explorers of old, who could name newly found lands whatever they wanted, the researchers who discover new elements have to submit their choices to a committee before they can leave their mark on the periodic table, the map of the chemical world. In September the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry resolved the debate on six laboratory-made elements, assigning the names rutherfordium (Rf), dubnium (Db), seaborgium (Sg), bohrium (Bh), hassium (Hs), and meitnerium (Mt) to elements 104 through 109. (The numbers refer to the total protons in each element’s nucleus.)

The first sample of rutherfordium was produced about 30 years ago, but the naming process was drawn out by competing claims from laboratories in the United States, Germany, and Russia. A joint commission of physicists and chemists sought a compromise that would satisfy all. The Russians gained recognition for work done at a laboratory in Dubna—to the dismay of the Americans, who dispute some of that lab’s claims. The Americans wanted to honor 85-year-old Glenn Seaborg of the University of California at Berkeley, as well as Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist who discovered the atomic nucleus. The Germans wanted to enshrine Lise Meitner, codiscoverer of atomic fission, as well as one of their labs in the state of Hesse. And both the Germans and Russians pushed for Niels Bohr. I suspect the feeling between the United States and Russia is a relic of the cold war, says Jeffery Leigh of the chemists’ union. In the end, this is a compromise that doesn’t satisfy anybody completely.

At least Seaborg, the Nobel laureate discoverer of ten elements, including plutonium, has reason to be happy. This is the greatest honor that I’ve ever received, he says. One hundred years, a thousand years—there it is, still in the periodic table. Not only is Seaborg the first living scientist to have an element named after him, he’s also the only person who could receive mail addressed only in elements: Seaborgium, Lawrencium (for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory where he still works), Berkelium, Californium, Americium. But don’t forget the zip code.

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