How many scientists does it take to discover five elements? More than you might think…

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…


The word “carbon” comes from the Latin “carbo”, meaning coal and charcoal.

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.

Diamond is a form of carbon used by humans for over 6000 years.

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.


Brass, an alloy of zinc, has been used for thousands of years.

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.

These days, zinc is often used as a coating on other metals, to prevent corrosion.

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.


Evidence of helium was first discovered during a solar eclipse.

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.

Mendeleev’s early versions of the periodic table, such as this one from 1871, did not include any of the noble gases (click for image source).

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.

Marguerite Perey discovered francium (click for image source).

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.

A sample of uraninite containing perhaps 100,000 atoms of francium-223 (click for image source).

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.

Element 117, tennessine, was named after Tennessee in the USA.

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.

Tennessine’s discovery was officially announced in Dubna in 2010 — the result of a Russian-American collaboration — and the name tennessine was officially adopted in November 2016.

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…

There’s a story behind every element, and it’s almost always one with a varied cast of characters.

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.

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2019. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
Buy Me a Coffee at



Are you a Christmas chemist and you didn’t know it?

So Christmas has been and gone and we’re all forlornly looking at pine-needles around the tree and the mountainous pile of recycling in the kitchen, promising ourselves that we’ll eat nothing but salad come January first. But in the meantime, let’s take a bit of time out from the sales, watching Christmas telly and eating endless chocolates (I’m pretty sure anything eaten between December 24th-31st doesn’t count) and think about all the chemistry we’ve done over the last few days – yay!

Cracker snaps contain silver fulminate.

Cracker snaps contain silver fulminate.

Pulling crackers
Pulled a cracker over Christmas? Of course you have, and probably more than one. Did you wonder what caused the bang and the strangely appealing chemically smell? Of course you didn’t, but never fear, I shall tell you anyway. It was probably silver fulminate, AgCNO. This particular chemical is a primary explosive, but not a particularly useful one due to its extreme sensitivity. It’s so sensitive to any kind of shock (including the touch of a feather, a drop of water, or even just a particularly loud noise) that it’s completely impossible to collect more than the most minute amount without it blowing up unexpectedly. It was first prepared by Edward Charles Howard in 1800, who was working on preparing fulminates. None of them are stable, and one has to wonder if he had any eyebrows or eardrums by the time he’d finished. Anyway, silver fulminate has found one sort of practical use, and that’s in novelty snaps like the ones in crackers. There’s a tiny amount of silver fulminate on one piece of cardboard, and an abrasive on the other. When you pull, the two rub against each other and BANG! Paper hats, plastic toys and bad jokes abound. What happened after an explosion at a French cheese factory? All that was left was de brie.

Release the pressure and carbonic acid converts into water and carbon dioxide. Quickly.

Release the pressure and carbonic acid converts into water and carbon dioxide. Quickly.

Opening bottles of fizzy stuff
Most people are probably already vaguely aware that the bubbles are carbon dioxide, but there’s more to it than that, oh yes. Have you ever noticed that the liquid in the bottle looks completely bubble-less until you actually open it? If not, check next time. It’s really quite amazing. Why is this? Well, there’s a bit of chemistry going on. Brace yourself for an equation:

CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3

There on the left you have carbon dioxide and water, and on the right something called carbonic acid. The double arrow thingy means the reaction is reversible, and the thing about reactions like this is that they will sit there quite happily, perfectly balanced, until something happens to change them. In the case of fizzy bottles, opening them will do that. It lets out the carbon dioxide and that causes the reaction to make yet more water and carbon dioxide in an attempt to compensate. That’s where all the bubbles come from, and it’s also why fizzy drinks taste peculiarly sweet if they’re left to go flat – like all acids (testing this is not recommended, but trust me) carbonic acid tastes sour and when it gets used up the sweetness due to sugars and sweeteners starts to take over. Contrary to popular belief, putting a spoon in the bottle will do absolutely nothing whatsoever to stop your champers from going flat. Sticking some kind of air-tight stopper in it, on the other hand, will definitely help.

The blue flame is due to complete combustion.

The blue flame is due to complete combustion.

Setting fire to the christmas pudding
Or rather, the generous splash of alcohol you’ve just poured on it. Have you noticed that the flame is a lovely blue colour, very different from the warm yellow of coal and candles? That’s because when you burn alcohol, specifically ethanol, CH3CH2OH, you get something called complete combustion. This happens when there’s enough oxygen to only produce carbon dioxide and water as products. Ethanol has an oxygen atom built in, so it burns more completely than hydrocarbon fuels like coal and candle wax, which tend to produce carbon atoms (also known as soot) and carbon monoxide as well. The reason the flame is blue rather than yellow is because that yellow colour is caused by carbon atoms getting so hot that they glow. By definition, in complete combustion there’s no carbon, so no yellow. Instead the gas molecules in the flame get so hot they start glowing instead, giving off blue light. All together now, oooooh!

Alpha-pinene gives christmas trees their smell.

Alpha-pinene gives christmas trees their smell.

Sniffing a Christmas tree
What is that lovely smell? Mostly a molecule called pinene, specifically alpha-pinene. It’s a funny-looking thing isn’t it? Looks a bit like a waiter rushing with a full drinks tray. Anyway, there are two forms of this molecule: alpha and beta.  Alpha is the most common one in nature, particularly in conifers (which Christmas trees are). Peculiarly, it somehow manages to be both an insect repellant while also, apparently, being used by insects as a chemical communication system. I don’t know how this works, ask an entomologist.

Christmas lights owe their glow to tungsten.

Christmas lights owe their glow to tungsten.

Switching on the Christmas lights
These days, LED lights are slowly taking over, but there are still enough filament bulbs kicking around in boxes of decorations that they’ll probably persist for a few years yet. Electricity consumption be dammed, they do make a much prettier glow. And why is that? It’s partially due to tungsten, element number 74. It has the highest melting point of all the elements (there’s a handy fact for your next trivia quiz) and as a result it is, or at least used to be, used to make the filament in incandescent light bulbs. Heat it up and it starts to glow long before it reaches its melting point of 3422 oC. The bulbs are also filled with an inert gas, usually krypton (nothing whatsoever to do with Superman, sorry), which stops the tungsten from reacting with the oxygen that would be present in ordinary air. In fact, filling a bulb with krypton makes it even brighter and longer-lasting than just pumping all the air out leaving a vacuum, because the krypton helps to disperse the heat.

So there you go, just a few of the many, many bits of chemistry you’ve done so far this Christmas. Enjoy the rest of the chocolates, have a happy New Year, and to those out there with January mock exams coming up, good luck!