My last post chronicled (see what I did there?) a meandering stroll through all 118 elements in the periodic table. As I read through all the pieces of that thread, I kept wanting to find out more about some of the stories. This is the international year of the periodic table, after all — what better time to go exploring?
But, here’s the thing: 118 is a lot. It took ages even just to collect all the (mostly less than) 280-character tweets together. Elemental stories span the whole of human existence and are endlessly fascinating, but telling all of them in any kind of detail would take whole book (not a small one, either) and would be a project years in the making. So, how about instead having a look at some notable landmarks? A sort of time-lapse version of elemental history and discovery, if you will…
Let’s begin the story with carbon: fourth most abundant element in the universe and tenth most abundant in the Earth’s crust (give or take). When the Earth first formed, about 4.54 billion years ago, volcanic activity resulted in an atmosphere that was mostly carbon dioxide. The very earliest forms of life evolved to use carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Carbon-based compounds make up the bulk of all life on this planet today, and carbon is the second most abundant element in the human body (after oxygen).
When we talk about discovering elements, our minds often leap to “who”. But, as we’ll see throughout this journey, that’s never an entirely straightforward question. The word “carbon” comes from the Latin carbo, meaning coal and charcoal. Humans have known about charcoal for many thousands of years — after all, if you can make a fire, it’s not long before you start to wonder if you can do something with this leftover black stuff. We’ll never know who first “discovered” carbon. But we can be sure of one thing: it definitely wasn’t an 18th century European scientist.
Then there are diamonds, although of course it took people a bit longer to understand how diamonds and other forms of carbon were connected. Human use of diamonds may go back further than we imagine, too. There’s evidence that the Chinese used diamonds to grind and polish ceremonia tools as long as 6,000 years ago.
Even the question of who first identified carbon as an element isn’t entirely straightforward. In 1722, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur demonstrated that iron was turned into steel by absorbing some substance. In 1772, Lavoisier showed for the first time that diamonds could burn (contrary to a key plot point in a 1998 episode of Columbo).
In 1779, Scheele demonstrated that graphite wasn’t lead, but rather was a form of charcoal that formed aerial acid (today known as carbonic acid) when it was burned and the products dissolved in water. In 1786 Claude Louis Berthollet, Gaspard Monge and C. A. Vandermonde again confirmed that graphite was mostly carbon, and in 1796, Smithson Tennant showed that burning diamond turned limewater milky — the established test for carbon dioxide gas — and argued that diamond and charcoal were chemically identical.
Even that isn’t quite the end of the story: fullerenes were discovered 1985, and Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, and Richard Smalley were awarded a Nobel Prize for: “The discovery of carbon atoms bound in the form of a ball” in 1996.
Type “who discovered carbon” into a search engine and Lavoisier generally appears, but really? He was just one of many, most of whose names we’ll never know.
Now for the other end of the alphabet: zinc. It’s another old one, although not quite as old as carbon. Zinc’s history is inextricably linked with copper, because zinc ores have been used to make brass alloys for thousands of years. Bowls made of alloyed tin, copper and zinc have been discovered which date back to at least 9th Century BCE, and many ornaments have been discovered which are around 2,500 years old.
It’s also been used in medicine for a very long time. Zinc carbonate pills, thought to have been used to treat eye conditions, have been found on a cargo ship wrecked off the Italian coast around 140 BCE, and zinc is mentioned in Indian and Greek medical texts as early as the 1st century CE. Alchemists burned zinc in air in 13th century India and collected the white, woolly tufts that formed. They called it philosopher’s wool, or nix alba (“white snow”). Today, we know the same thing as zinc oxide.
The name zinc, or something like it, was first documented by Paracelsus in the 16th century — who called it “zincum” or “zinken” in his book, Liber Mineralium II. The name might be derived from the German zinke, meaning “tooth-like” — because crystals of tin have a jagged, tooth-like appearance. But it could also suggest “tin-like”, since the German word zinn means tin. It might even be from the Persian word سنگ, “seng”, meaning stone.
P. M. de Respour formally reported that he had extracted metallic zinc from zinc oxide in 1668, although as I mentioned above, in truth it had been extracted centuries before then. In 1738, William Champion patented a process to extract zinc from calamine (a mixture of zinc oxide and iron oxide) in a vertical retort smelter, and Anton von Swab also distilled zinc from calamine in 1742.
Despite all that, credit for discovery of zinc usually goes to Andreas Marggraf, who’s generally considered the first to recognise zinc as a metal in its own right, in 1746.
Ironically for an element which is (controversially) used to fill balloons, helium’s discovery is easier to pin down. In fact, we can name a specific day: August 18, 1868. The astronomer Jules Janssen was studying the chromosphere of the sun during a total solar eclipse in Guntur, India, and found a bright, yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nm.
In case you thought this was going to be simple, though, he didn’t recognise the significance of the line immediately, thinking it was caused by sodium. But then, later the same year, Norman Lockyer also observed a yellow line in the solar spectrum — which he concluded was caused by an element in the Sun unknown on Earth. Lockyer and Edward Frankland named the element from the Greek word for the Sun, ἥλιος (helios).
Janssen and Lockyer may have identified helium, but they didn’t find it on Earth. That discovery was first made by Luigi Palmieri, analysing volcanic material from Mount Vesuvius in 1881. And it wasn’t until 1895 that William Ramsay first isolated helium by treating the mineral cleveite (formula UO2) with acid whilst looking for argon.
Interestingly, Mendeleev’s 1869 periodic table had no noble gases as there was very little evidence for them at the time. When Ramsay discovered argon, Mendeleev assumed it wasn’t an element because of its unreactivity, and it was several years before he was convinced that any of what we now call the noble gases should be included. As a result, helium didn’t appear in the periodic table until 1902.
Who shall we say discovered helium? The astronomers, who first identified it in our sun? Or the chemists, who managed to collect actual samples on Earth? Is an element truly “discovered” if you can’t prove you had actual atoms of it — even for a brief moment?
So far you may have noticed that all of these discoveries have been male dominated. This is almost certainly not because women were never involved in science, as there are plenty of records suggesting that women often worked in laboratories in various capacities — it’s just that their male counterparts usually reported the work. As a result the men got the fame, while the women’s stories were, a lot of the time, lost.
Of course, the name that jumps to mind at this point is Marie Curie, who famously discovered polonium and radium and had a third element, curium, named in honour of her and her husband’s work. But she’s famous enough. Let’s instead head over to the far left of the periodic table and have a look at francium.
Mendeleev predicted there ought to be an element here, following the trend of the alkali metals. He gave it the placeholder name of eka-caesium, but its existence wasn’t to be confirmed for some seventy years. A number of scientists claimed to have found it, but its discovery is formally recorded as having been made in January 1939 by Marguerite Perey. After all the previous failures, Perey was incredibly meticulous and thorough, carefully eliminating all possibility that the unknown element might be thorium, radium, lead, bismuth, or thallium.
Perey temporarily named the new alkali metal actinium-K (since it’s the result of alpha decay of 227Ac), and proposed the official name of catium (with the symbol Cm), since she believed it to be the most electropositive cation of the elements.
But the symbol Cm was assigned to curium, and Irène Joliot-Curie, one of Perey’s supervisors, argued against the name “catium”, feeling it suggested the element was something to do with cats. Perey then suggested francium, after her home country of France, and this was officially adopted in 1949.
Francium was the last element to be discovered in nature. Trace amounts occur in uranium minerals, but it’s incredibly scarce. Its most stable isotope has a half life of just 22 minutes, and bulk francium has never been observed. Famously, there’s at most 30 g of francium in the Earth’s crust at any one time.
Of all the elements I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the most clear-cut case. Perey deservedly takes the credit for discovering francium. But even then, she wouldn’t have been able to prove so conclusively that the element she found wasn’t something else had it not been for all the false starts that came before. And then there are all the other isotopes of francium, isolated by a myriad of scientists in the subsequent years…
All of which brings us to one of the last elements to be discovered: tennessine (which I jokingly suggested ought to be named octarine back in 2016). As I mentioned above, francium was the last element to be discovered in nature: tessessine doesn’t exist on Earth. It has only ever been created in a laboratory, by firing a calcium beam into a target made of berkelium (Bk) and smashing the two elements together in a process called nuclear fusion.
Like tennessine, berkelium isn’t available on Earth and had to be made in a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee — the reason for the new element’s name. One of the scientists involved, Clarice E. Phelps, is believed to be the first African American to discover a chemical element in recent history, having worked on the purification of the 249Bk before it was shipped to Russia and used to help discover element 117.
Who discovered it? Well, the lead name on the paper published in Physical Review Letters is Yuri Oganessian (for whom element 118 was named), but have a look at that paper and you’ll see there’s a list of over 30 names, and that doesn’t even include all the other people who worked in the laboratories, making contributions as part of their daily work.
From five to many…
As I said at the start, when we talk about discovering elements, our minds often leap to “who” — but they probably shouldn’t. Scientists really can’t work entirely alone: collaboration and communication are vital aspects of science, because without them everyone would have to start from scratch all the time, and humans would never have got beyond “fire, hot”. As Isaac Newton famously said in a letter in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
There’s a story behind every element, and it’s almost always one with a varied cast of characters.
This post was written by with the help of Kit Chapman (so, yes: it’s by Kit and Kat!). Kit’s new book, ‘Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table‘, will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 13th June.
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