The Fighting Chemists

Around 1600, Michał Sędziwój was one of the first to isolate oxygen, a controversial element. He also worked to turn mercury into gold.

Everyone knows that the way we name the members of the periodic table is largely arbitrary. In the beginning, we got fun names based on Latin roots. For example, the name for oxygen, which was discovered around 1772, was derived from the Greek “oxys”, meaning, “sharp” and “genes” meaning “begetter” because it was early believed that all acids contained oxygen. It is interesting to note that oxygen was first known in conjunction with nitrogen, and most other “airs,” as phlogiston, the fire element. When nitrogen was first isolated, as a homonuclear diatomic (two atoms bound together) it was called, “azote,” from the Greek for “lifeless.” Later it was named, “nitrogen” after, “nitre” and the Greek “genes,” for “begetter” because it made nitrate (NO3) compounds. Nowadays the elements we discover are not half as important as those first elements, if by important we mean “useful.” The fights over naming them, however, are ridiculous. In a way, this is a good thing, because it means we have so many scientists in the field that their research overlaps. Science is all about replication of results.

I still think that 10 years is a lot of time to spend in argument over a name after the results have been replicated, only to end up calling element 112, “Copernicium.” Copernicus is a fine scientist to name an element after, even if he was a famous astronomer, rather than a chemist. Did we really need that long to decide on an uncontroversial name like that? I find it ironic that these scientists, who argued as though the world revolved around them, ended up naming the element after the man who proved that it doesn’t. Perhaps someone at IUPAC, the Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, has a sense of humor. I wanted a 112 to be a name with a back story, like say 66, Dyprosium. There has to be an interesting meaning behind that name. In fact, it means, “hard to get,” a reflection on thirty frustrated attempts to isolate it. More importantly, I want to know how many elements we have officially. When the elements are still in limbo, both in name and in existence, they get names like 118, Ununoctium. This is a fun name to say and a hard one to spell, like many other element names. However, it is so boring and systematic, that it is pretty obvious that IUPAC had a hand in naming it.

At times, I wish the IUPAC had named the entire periodic table the boring way, supplementing traditional names, as they did with their system for naming organic compounds, but I realize that all these names are artifacts of another age. I also realize that trying to instate new names would make elemental names just as confusing and difficult to remember as certain group names. (Curse you, neopentyl!) By the time I am eighty, I predict that we will have developed the technology to confirm the discovery of all 118, but today we are still discovering what the world is made with. That is pretty exciting, even if we do have to manufacture the elements to observe them. Up to the present day, I can date textbooks by which version of the periodic table they contain, and it is truly fascinating to look at my grandfather’s chemistry texts and see how far we have come in fifty years.

Then again, perhaps we have not come so far. In 1811, Courtois was excited about his discovery of new purple substance, and gave a sample to Gay-Lussac. Gay-Lussac proceeded to take the vial of substance Courtois gave him home, study it, and claim the discovery of iodine as an element. (Iodine means, “violet.”) Davy was not happy about that because he had also been working with iodine and identified it as an element. Again, in 1834, Berzelius steamed after Jean-Baptiste Dumas’s lab assistant Laurent offered up a paper discounting his theory dualastic theory of chemical structure (In short, all substances are formed by ionic bonds, but polyatomic ions exist.) with his nucleus theory. (Basically, as long as the geometry of the molecule stays the same, individual atoms may be replaced without changing the nature of the compound.) Berzelius got so upset that Dumas had to write a letter explaining that Laurent had jumped to a conclusion, and that he had nothing to do with his protegé’s theories. If grown men argued over minutiae in the dawn of modern chemistry, then I can rest assured that science, or the scientist, has not changed much over the course of two hundred years. (Is it only that long?)

So IUPAC, you get off the hook for taking 10 years to name 112, “Copernicium,” but could you hurry up with the next batch of names? I want a good story to tell. More importantly, I still can’t spell my name with the elemental symbols.

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