A Tale of Seven Elements

Scerri, Eric. A Tale of Seven Elements. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2013. ISBN-10: 0195391314. Price: $18.95

Does it really matter who has made a particular discovery? In his book, “A Tale of Seven Elements,” Eric Scerri shows that it does, at least to the scientists involved in it (E. Scerri, 2013). The book is about how seven elements with atomic numbers in the range from 43 to 91 were isolated and identified.  The discovery of protactinium (Pa), hafnium (Hf), rhenium (Re), technetium (Tc), francium (Fr), astatine (At), and promethium (Pm) are discussed in the context of the historical events between and during the two world wars. This background allows the reader to appreciate the human side of the efforts and personal sacrifices made by the scientists. It is hard for the contemporary reader to even imagine what it looked like to continue to work when tragic events such as persecution of ethnic groups, nationalism, and killing of innocent people were raging outside the lab.

The book is a continuation of the author’s interest in the history of the Periodic Table. The first two chapters are a concise version of his previous book, “The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance” (E. R. Scerri, 2006), which is the most comprehensive account of how Dmitri Mendeleev and other scientists came to create an organized system for arranging the chemical elements and were even able to predict such that were not yet discovered. More recently, Scerri has also published a smaller book on the periodic table (E. Scerri, 2012).

Several years ago I interviewed Dr. Scerri about his research and the interview was published in the Chemical Information Bulletin (Baykoucheva, 2010).  In his new book I could see some of the themes he discussed in this interview: the nature of research, the personal struggles of scientists, their disputes about priority and recognition, and what it has cost (in terms of human effort and sacrifice) to discover a new chemical element.

Seven chapters in the book reviewed here are devoted to the individual elements, and another chapter follows the research devoted to filling the open spaces for missing elements and the synthesis of new elements. When he drew his version of the Periodic Table, Mendeleev predicted the existence of three of the seven elements discussed in the book—technetium, astatine, and promethium, but it took many years before these elements were actually isolated and confirmed. Some of the seven elements were first synthesized in the lab and then isolated from natural materials. Four of them exist only in trace amounts in the Earth’s crust, and their discovery required processing huge amounts of raw materials. To obtain only 125 g of protactinium, the Atomic Energy Authority in the United Kingdom processed 60 tons of waste of uranium minerals, spending $500,000 for this purchase. The product was later sold at the price of $3,000 per gram, but the element itself found no applications in real life except for studying the age of ancient oceans.

Scerri emphasized the significance of the work of the English scientist Henry Mosley who suggested that the chemical elements should be ordered as a sequence of integers (later called atomic numbers), rather than by atomic weight, as it was initially proposed by Mendeleev. This arrangement made it possible to explain many observed discrepancies and gaps in the periodic table. It was the X-ray method that he discovered that led to the identification of several new chemical elements and has allowed others to predict precisely the elements that remained to be isolated.

The book of Eric Scerri is about the successes and failures in discovering these seven chemical elements, and it raises many interesting questions about how discoveries are made. Scientists often argue about priority and the significance of their work, with nationalism and personal rivalries contributing to the complexity of the process.  Does a discovery need to be announced in a reputable scientific journal? (For example, the discovery of palladium by William Hyde Wollaston was announced in a newspaper advertisement.) This question is very relevant today, when new forms of scholarly communication and social networking tools allow scientists to bypass the traditional ways of publishing.

Scerri shows how difficult it has been to determine who should get the credit for a particular discovery. There were cases when an element was isolated but remained unknown until someone else identified and published it. Other elements, including carbon and sulfur, have been discovered anonymously, as were all the elements that were discovered before the year 1500. Also, a discovery may be attributed to more than one person or a group of people, as the same research is usually carried out in different labs and different countries. 

Although the book is about seven rare elements, the personal stories of the scientists behind these discoveries and the historical background on which these events played out contribute significantly to the enjoyment of reading it. I cannot look at the book through the eyes of someone who has never studied chemistry, but I am sure that those interested in the history of science will find interesting information in it that is not so difficult to understand.  To me, the book was not only a useful refresher of how the periodic table came into being, and how scientists pursued the discovery of the individual elements.  I have learned a lot of interesting facts that have somehow evaded my attention before.

References

  • Baykoucheva, S.  A philosopher’s view on the periodic table of the elements and its significance: Interview with Eric Scerri. Chemical Information Bulletin, 2010, 62(1), 16-21, http://hdl.handle.net/1903/11845.
  • Scerri, E. R. The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2012.
  • Scerri, E. R.  A Tale of Seven Elements: Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2013.
  • Scerri, E. R. The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance: Oxford, England, 2006.

 

Svetla Baykoucheva
White Memorial Chemistry Library
University of Maryland College Park
sbaykouc@umd.edu