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How false discoveries in chemistry led to progress in science

In the popular imagination, science proceeds with great leaps of discovery — new planets, new cures, new elements. In reality, though, science is a long, grueling process of trial and error, in which tantalizing false discoveries constantly arise and vanish on further examination. These failures can teach us as much — or more — than its successes. The field of chemistry is littered with them. Today only 118 elements have been documented, but hundreds more have been “discovered” over the years — named, publicly trumpeted, and sometimes even included in textbooks — only to be exposed as bogus with better tools, or when a fraud was sniffed out. Their stories, sprinkled with stubborn pride, analytical incompetency, precipitate haste, amateurish error, and even practical joking, read like a catalog of the ways science can go awry, and how it moves forward nonetheless. Here are some illustrative “lost element” stories and their discoverers — and what we can learn in spite of them.

Junonium was “discovered” by Sir John Herschel in 1858. Herschel was a renowned astronomer, mathematician, and photographer, but not a trained chemist. Junonium was just one of a new class of “photochemical” elements that could never be substantiated, let alone isolated.

Victorium was “discovered” by Sir William Crookes in 1898. Crookes imprudently announced the discovery of a new element that was later shown to be a mixture of gadolinium and terbium. He first called this element monium, and then exacerbated his error by renaming it in honor Queen Victoria, who had recently knighted him.

Newtonium and coronium were “discovered” by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1903. Mendeleev is famous for having discovered (and publicized) the periodic law of the elements. What is less well known is that he postulated the existence of elements lighter than air, among them newtonium and coronium. His claims were largely a paranoid response to the discovery of the electron, which he thought would compromise the validity of “his” periodic table.

Dmitri Mendeleev. Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dmitri Mendeleev, Museum Archive of Dmitri Mendeleev at the Saint Petersburg State University. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Occultum was “discovered” by Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater in 1909. Clairvoyants Besant and Leadbeater claimed to use their cognitive powers to observe the entire atomic universe, slowing down its movement by “force of will” and describing bizarre elements like occultum and anu in great detail. Their book Occult Chemistry went into three editions.

Neo-holmium was “discovered” by Josef Maria Eder in 1911. Very influential in photography, Eder postulated this and other nonexistent rare-earth elements on the basis of flimsy and misinterpreted spectroscopic data. Inexperienced and “out-of-field” in this kind of chemistry, he failed to recognize that his samples contained impurities that skewed the results, leading to errors spanning almost a decade.

Celtium was “discovered” by Georges Urbain in 1922. Flimsy evidence on impure samples led Urbain to fall into a trap which was the same kind of error for which he had blamed others for falling into, detecting an “element” where one didn’t exist.

Hibernium was “discovered” by John Joly in 1922. An Irish physicist and geologist, Joly was the first to deduce that the age of the earth might be measured in billions rather than thousands of years. He theorized that strange halo-like marks in mica samples were caused by a radioactive element that he called hibernium. He inferred too much from too little data; it was later found that the causative substance was a radioactive isotope of an already known element.

Florentium was “discovered” by Luigi Rolla in 1927. Many scientists were on the hunt for the elusive element 61. Rolla carried out over 50,000 chemical separations in an attempt to isolate it from naturally occurring rare earth mixtures. Soon after announcing the discovery, he realized it was in error, but he retracted it only 15 years later in an obscure journal published, partially in Latin.

Virginium and Alabamine were “discovered” by Fred Allison in 1931-32. Allison was among many scientists seeking the elements 85 and 87, which were missing spots on the periodic table. He devised an apparatus based on what he called the “magneto-optic” method of analysis, and then claimed to have observed both. Although quickly shown to be false, these elements remained in the periodic tables of chemistry textbooks for years.

Ausonium and hesperium were “discovered” by Enrico Fermi in 1934. The great physicist and his team bombarded uranium with neutrons and detected what seemed like unknown atoms. Despite their caution, their university administrator announced the two “new” elements, and Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in consequence. He never admitted his Nobel was based on a false discovery. Interpreted correctly, he had found the first evidence of nuclear fission, which would have deserved the Nobel anyway.

Element 118 was “discovered” by Victor Ninov in 1999. In the mid-1990s, Ninov helped discover elements 110, 111, and 112 in Germany using a data-analysis code that he developed. He moved to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and in 1999 announced the synthesis of element 118; only Ninov had access to the raw data, and it took 3 years to discover that he had deliberately falsified them. Ninov was fired in 2002.

Featured Image: Chemicals in flasks by Joe Sullivan. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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