Books editor’s blog: elemental journeys and hellish christenings

Matthew Reisz is intrigued by a gentle stroll through the byways of the periodic table

November 21, 2019
Taxi with periodic table
Source: Alamy

In November 2016, the periodic table was completed with the addition of the four final elements: nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson. That last element settled into the ultimate place, 118th, in the seven-layer series, which starts with hydrogen at number 1. It is easy to guess that moscovium was discovered in Moscow and perhaps that tennessine pays tribute to Tennessee. Nihonium is derived from a Japanese word for Japan, meaning “Land of the Rising Sun”, while oganesson pays tribute to a Professor Yuri Oganessian.

Yet every single one of the 118 elements has a more or less elaborate story about how it came to be named. With the table now complete, this is a perfect moment for Peter Wothers – a teaching fellow in the University of Cambridge’s department of physics – to tell the comprehensive bigger story of “how the elements are named” in his strikingly titled book Antinomy, Gold and Jupiter’s Wolf (Oxford University Press). Today, he writes, there is a complex process whereby a joint working party of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics “has to scrutinize the evidence and confirm that the atoms in question were actually formed (albeit briefly), then establish who exactly made them first, and, finally wait for the concerned parties within the group who first made the discovery to agree on a name”. Even then, it has to be approved by the working party.

It is only recently that things became so formalised. The historical section of Wothers’ account leads us on a strange tour, taking in the castration of Uranus, poetry about “mining goblins and their activities”, sulfur as “the element from Hell”, “solar sponges”, “ichthyosauros cutlets”, “superheavies” and “the French reform of the alkalis”.

Such a book could only have been written by an academic deeply learned and passionate about chemistry. Yet it is hard to know exactly who the core market is. Who needs to read a book about the naming of scandium, scotium, seaborgium and selenium, or indeed the elements associated with either Jupiter or wolves? The text seems unlikely to find a place on many degree courses, which makes it slightly pointless for me to send it out to be reviewed. Yet it is also the kind of book whose title might pique someone’s interest in a bookshop and inspire a lifelong passion for chemistry and its history. Whether or not it gains them much credit in research excellence frameworks, it seems worth celebrating that some academics are still producing books so curious, wide-ranging and enthusiastic.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Marginalia and Miscellanea: Elemental journeys and hellish christenings

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Reader's comments (1)

It was intriguing to read the suggestion in Matthew Reisz’s review that with the observation of “four final elements” up to Element 118: "...the periodic table was completed... last element settled into the ultimate place, 118th, in the seven-layer series, which starts with hydrogen at number 1. " In fact, there is no hard and fast rule that the Table of Elements has a completion or ultimate place. Although the search for superheavy elements focussed on the “Island of Stability ”, (atoms with nuclei having relatively stable combinations of protons and neutrons) and indeed atoms of elements up to 118 have now been observed, an eighth row of the Table of Elements (and perhaps beyond) cannot be ruled out a priori, as explained in the later parts of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_stability (possibility of elements up to 126, and even perhaps 154 or 164; see further links below). Looking at the other end of the scale, there is also (loosely speaking) “Element 0”, Neutronium https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutronium which has isotopes ranging from at least 1 (technically classifiable as a Noble Gas) or 2 neutrons (observed 2012), and then, arguably perhaps, a giant leap to Neutronium’s own “Island of Stability” – all the varied neutron stars in the universe, a great many of which have now been observed. However, I will concede that there is unlikely to be an Element “Minus 1”, so there does seem to be a lower bound completion. In any event, I thank Matthew for reviewing Peter Wothers’s 'Antinomy, Gold and Jupiter’s Wolf' (Oxford University Press), which I have now pre-ordered in time for Xmas (and, belatedy, I see from Amazon's "Look Inside" that Wothers's Preface does concede an eighth row, though it's unlikely to be completed). Also https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/beyond-element-118-the-next-row-of-the-periodic-table/9400.article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_periodic_table https://www.thoughtco.com/island-stability-discovering-new-superheavy-elements-4018746

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