Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dr. Bandwagon or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cyclotron

Two weeks ago IUPAC announced the Discovery and Assignment of Elements with Atomic Numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118. The term "discovery" is a little misleading with respect to the superheavy elements. It's not like these elements were unexpectedly found at the bottom of a nuclear reactor or by painstakingly searching for new primary constituents of exotic metallic ores. Instead the researchers carefully designed experiments and bombarded nuclei with the hypothesis that certain combinations of lighter elements would fuse into superheavy atoms. So, the discovery is really only whether their synthetic hypothesis was correct or not. This does not diminish the significance of the outcome, but it feels like the connotation of "discovery" downplays the intellectual role of the researchers who did the experiments. Nevertheless, the nature of words and what we call things engenders a lot of strong opinions, especially the names of new elements. IUPAC, as arbiter of element names (and names of things in chemistry in general), is well aware of this especially after the Cold War era Battle Royale between research groups in the United States and Russia over the right to name elements 101 through 106.

The press release by IUPAC produced an immediate fervor in both the scientific community and the popular press. This is certainly a chance for chemistry (and physics) to take center stage in the public eye, so no one should blame anyone for taking full advantage of the opportunity. That goes double for publishers like Chemistry World and Nature, who have the chance to engage an audience that might ignore any number of other science and chemistry stories. In the excitement though, some people are overestimating their role in the process of naming elements.

First, the ridiculous suggestions. There are currently petitions that have received attention in the popular media to call 2 of the new elements 'lemmium' to honor heavy metal musician Ian 'Lemmy' Kilmister of Motörhead, and 'octarine' to honor Terry Prachett's Discworld series. At least the creators of the octarine petition are seeking an audience with the right people (JINR and LLNL) who actually get to suggest a name. The lemmium petition is directed directly toward IUPAC who only sanction/approve names suggested by the discoverers (although there is a clause stating the IUPAC can select a name if an appropriate suggestion is not made, which seems highly unlikely). Neither of these proposals meet IUPAC's guidelines for new element names. The rules state: "Elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist". Unfortunately, "rocking hard" isn't exactly what IUPAC meant by a "property", so 'lemmium' is out. One could try to argue that 'octarine' is a mythological concept, but it's hardly the equivalent of 'promethium' named after the Greek god Prometheus. Check back in a few hundred years. Octarine gets traction now because the Discworld books are very popular, and Pratchett died recently. The periodic table is timeless. We don't know yet how timeless Discworld will be (sorry, folks). 

These suggestions are also counter to any suggestions the researchers might even brainstorm on a whiteboard. The initial reports on these elements starting appearing in the mid-aughts, so they've been waiting nearly, or more than, a decade for the independent confirmations of their experiments and approval by IUPAC needed to suggest an element name. Researchers also had to overcome serious obstacles to even try their experiments such as making and purifying radioactive, fairly shorted lived super heavy starting materials. With all the years, people and resources involved in this effort, does naming an element after a mid-tier musician with a well-documented substance abuse problem and a collection of Nazi paraphernalia even sound reasonable?** Can you even imagine that in the 10 years or so that they've been waiting to suggest an element name that the researchers haven't kicked the tires on a few ideas?

This gets to the central point. The researchers making new elements are doing difficult research. Coming up with a name is easy. They're really smart and creative people who don't need help with names. It's presumptuous to think any one us should have a say in what they chose. When I (Shawn) was interviewed for the ACS Reactions video, I was asked if I had a suggestion for a new element name. I answered no. Never in my wildest dreams did I think anyone would interview me about how elements were named, let alone be in a situation to name an element. I've had a longstanding interest in nuclear chemistry, but since I chose to study a different area, I abdicated any minute chance I had to name an element some time ago. In fairness, we had quite a lot to say about the structure of element names, and the new IUPAC naming guidelines. We specifically suggested modifying the naming conventions for group 17 and group 18 elementsthe halogens and noble elements; however, we never suggested any element names. Okay, we did suggest that 218Rn could beknown as astaton in jest, but no one seems to have listened.

In addition to ludicrous pop culture-inspired names, there have been calls to correct historic gender bias by naming new elements after women and a denouncement of names based on nationalism. We certainly would champion the choice if any of the research groups chose to honor one of the many women who have contributed to the expansion of the periodic table; however, it is unfair for anyone to graft their cause onto researchers who may be equally passionate about other worthy options. There's almost an implication that if researchers don't adopt some "altruistic" name that they will have done a disservice to science and the world. No where is that more apparent than the discussion of nationalistic names. Philip Ball has suggested 'levium' after Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor to send the message that the "periodic table is for all humanity". On the surface, these kinds of ideas sound inclusive, but given the pre-condemnation of a nationalistic Japanese element name from many quarters, even suggestions made in good faith can come off as sanctimonious.

Actually, the periodic table should not be a billboard to promote any cause; though it has unfortunately been exploited in the past. The most nationalistic names are from the late 19th century—germanium (Germany), gallium (France, from the Latin), and polonium (Poland), all named by a scientist from the respective countries. Francium followed this trend in 1939. These four elements stand out today as very nationalistic names.

There are other elements with regional names—scandium reflecting the pan-Scandinavianism enthusiasm of the 1870s. Europium and americium can be taken as referring to the continents rather than any one nation. Any nationalism behind 1828’s naming of ruthenium (Russia) seems weak since it reflected the location of discovery, not the discoverer. There is a bit of vanity in the city and local region element names. Invariably these reflect the location where the element was discovered: lutetium (Paris), holmium (Stockholm), hafnium (Copenhagen), berkelium (Berkeley), dubnium (Dubna), darmstadtium (Darmstadt), rhenium (Rhine River), hassium (Hesse), californium (California), livermorium (Livermore). These don't strike us as nationalistic. In addition, there are yttrium, ytterbium, terbium, and erbium, all named for Ytterby. In defense of this, a lot of elements were discovered in ores found there and ytterbium was named by a Swiss chemist. If the Swedes wanted to be nationalistic, it seems unlikely they'd chose the name of a village on a small island where quartz and feldspar were mined to make porcelain. Hardly the stuff of legend. Besides, how many people realize that hafnium references Copenhagen, Denmark?

There have been rumors that the Riken research group now credited with element 113 might choose the name 'japonium', and some have criticized this as nationalistic. While it's true that japonium would stick out like germanium, gallium, polonium, and francium, what is the deep rationale for criticizing japonium, other than "fairness" to those who had nothing to do with the work behind creating element 113? Japonium is still a rumor remember. In fact, "nationalistic" may not the right way to see any of these elements named for nations, regions, or cities. At worst, they are vanity names, but they celebrate where the work was done, where the element was first found or created. They tell part of the story behind the tablein a way that lemmium or octarine would not.

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, if the Riken group chooses to honor their homeland with an element name, we hope japonum is not the only one being considered. 'Nipponium'*** or 'nihonium' would reflect what the Japanese call their nation not an anglicized exonym; however, IUPAC credited element 113 to Riken, and they don't need our help either.
**Motörhead fans can direct all their hate tweets about this statement to @scburdet as @geochembrett has nothing to do with it.

***Nipponium was once suggested for element 75 (rhenium), but the discovery was later disproved. IUPAC has a restriction on reusing a name that has been "used" before, so 'nipponium' might be rejected. However, this clause has never been invoked. If the name only appears in a paper, but was not adopted or widely utilized, we believe it would still be acceptable.

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