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The undiscovered elements

How can an element be lost? Scientists, and the general public, have always thought of them as being found, or discovered. However, more elements have been “undiscovered” than discovered, more “lost” than found.

There are three great advances that revealed the true relationship of chemical elements to one another: Dmitri Mendeleev’s doctrine of the periodic table (1869), Henry Moseley’s law (1913) that conferred a number and an identity on every element by virtue of its number of nuclear protons, and Frederick Soddy’s discovery (1921) that more than one type of atom could occupy the same place in the periodic table as long as that all-important proton number were the same. Despite these markers along the trail, many scientists continued to make conceptually absurd and ridiculous errors. Many of these wrong turns were the results of experimental errors, whereas others arose from incompetence, scientific fraud, unorthodox beliefs, a misplaced nationalism, or just plain obstinacy.

But there’s more to be learned from these false discoveries than their “wrong science.” For example, Johann Bartholomäus Trommsdorff, who burst on the chemical scene in 1800 by announcing the discovery of augusterde (soon to be proven false), came from a family engaged in the pharmacist’s profession for an uninterrupted 200 years. Trommsdorff, unfortunately, did not bring glory to the family by announcing some years later the discovery of another non-existent element, crodonium. And then there was the case of Eugène Anatole Demarçay, who truly discovered europium, but then postulated the existence of another four elements that he provisionally designated by the Greek letters Γ, Δ, Ω, and Θ. Demarçay dedicated a good part of his brief life to research, exposing himself without precautions to radiation, harmful substances, and toxic vapors with serene resignation as he saw his health deteriorate rapidly. The story of the Japanese chemist, Masataka Ogawa, is particularly tragic. For all of his professional life, he claimed to have discovered element number 43, calling it nipponium after his native land. However, this elusive element was never isolated, and Ogawa died still chasing a phantom. Fear permeates the story of the Italian Luigi Rolla. He spent 17 years and carried out over 56,000 fractional crystallizations in the search for element 61, which he named florentium, only to have his worst fear realized: that priority for the discovery was claimed by a team of chemists from Illinois. It was only years later that both groups were discredited since the element did not exist except as a short-lived radioisotope.

It is understandable that the hunt for so many elements was on and that many scientists went down the wrong track. Time was of the essence, and the rewards for new discoveries were immense. Caution was often thrown overboard by both amateurs and professionals hot on the trail of the prestige that would accrue to someone who could expand the periodic table, gain the right to give a new element its name, and thereby create an eternal monument.

Enrico Fermi. Image Credit: Office of Public Affairs, United States Department of Energy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Enrico Fermi. Office of Public Affairs, United States Department of Energy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Surely one of the brightest stars to shine in the Italian physics firmament was Enrico Fermi, the precocious physicist who received his doctorate in that discipline from the University of Pisa at only 21 years of age. In 1927 at age 26 he was elected Professor of Theoretical Physics at Rome, a post created specifically for him, and for the next seven years he was occupied with theoretical studies on spectroscopic data. In 1934 things changed dramatically when he turned his attention to the atomic nucleus, demonstrating that he could accomplish nuclear transformations through neutron bombardment. The official website of the Nobel prize states: “This work resulted in the discovery of slow neutrons that same year, leading to the discovery of nuclear fission and the production of elements lying beyond what was until then the Periodic Table.” In 1938, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this work, and immediately thereafter departed Italy for the United States in order to escape Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Fermi’s original paper on this topic hypothesized the first production of the transuranium elements, which he named ausonium and hesperium, thus expanding the periodic table beyond uranium, but further work has shown that this supposition was incorrect. Had he and his colleagues not laughed Lise Meitner’s suggestion of nuclear fission to scorn, they would have made the greatest discovery of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Fermi’s subsequent brilliant work was enough to win him a place in the periodic table itself – element 100, fermium. He died an untimely death of stomach cancer at the age of 53. So here we learn that even the brightest stars can sometimes lose their luster.

But dogged sticking to one’s errors as well as stupidity and incompetence are not easily forgiven by the scientific establishment. Particularly frowned upon are press conferences and criminal proceedings before the peer review of a publication. Thus it was with Martin Fleischmann, the British electrochemist, who died in 2012 a lonely and bitter man. Right up to the end he remained convinced of his (imaginary) energy-producing, “cold” fusion of deuterium on palladium electrodes – he was right, of course; the world was wrong. He had long ago forfeited his credibility as a scientist. Even worse are the liars, cheats, and charlatans of every shade, which unfortunately, pop up again and again. Sooner or later they will be exposed because the system is infallible and self-correcting, at least on issues which are really interesting. Yet it can take quite a long time until the issue is finally put to rest, especially considering the alarming proportions of scientific illiteracy.

Feature Image: Test tubes. Photo by Armin Kübelbeck, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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