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Out of His Element : Discovery Won't Be Named for Chemist--Because He's Alive

October 12, 1994|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chemist Glenn T. Seaborg of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory will not have a new element named for him after all--because the Nobel laureate is still alive.

No element has ever been named after a living person, but earlier this year the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory team that created element 106 a quarter-century ago proposed that it be named seaborgium in honor of the discoverer of plutonium and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Now, even though seaborgium has been endorsed by a number of prestigious American scientific groups, the international organization responsible for naming chemicals says that element 106 will instead be named rutherfordium, for deceased British nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford.

"I'm very disappointed," the 81-year-old Seaborg said Tuesday. "The name was chosen by the discoverers of the element, and this would be the first time in history that the name chosen by the discoverers was not adopted."

"I'm horrified. This just doesn't make any sense to me," said physicist Albert Ghiorso, who headed the team that discovered element 106. "I obviously disapprove, and so does everyone else associated with it."

Seaborg and Ghiorso also said there is precedent for naming elements after living people. They noted that the Berkeley team named elements 99 and 100 after physicists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi while both men were alive. But because of the Cold War climate, those discoveries--and the chosen names--were classified secret. By the time the information was declassified, both of the great scientists were dead.

In fact, there had never been a written prohibition against naming an element after a living person until August, when a 20-member committee of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry formally accepted such a proposal. That vote, in effect, ruled out the Berkeley group's March proposal to name element 106 seaborgium.

One member of the committee, chemist Anthony J. Arduengo III of the DuPont Co., told the trade journal Chemical & Engineering News: "Discoverers don't have a right to name an element. They have a right to suggest a name. And, of course, we didn't infringe on that at all."

Ghiorso, however, argued that "never in the history of the world" has the discoverer of an element been deprived of naming it. The Berkeley group discovered and named several, including plutonium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium and fermium.

The team also discovered elements 104 and 105 and, ironically, proposed the name rutherfordium for 104 and hahnium for 105, the latter in honor of German chemist Otto Hahn. But the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry committee has decided to change both names. Element 104, the committee said, will be named dubnium, after the nuclear research center in Dubna, Russia, that has found several heavy elements. Element 105 will be named joliotium, after pioneering French physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie.

The decision "really louses up the scientific literature" because researchers have been using those names in publications for 20 years, said Berkeley physicist Darleane C. Hoffman. The name seaborgium has also appeared in scientific papers and periodic tables of the elements.

Concluded Seaborg: "I think it's all a terrible mistake."

Ghiorso noted that the new names have one last obstacle to overcome, ratification by a higher committee next August, and said he hopes that the original names will be restored. "After all, we have right on our side."

New Names for Man-Made Elements (Southland Edition, A14)

Atomic Name Symbol Number 101 Mendelevium Md 102 Nobelium No 103 Lawrencium Lr 104 Dubnium Db 105 Joliotium Jl 106 Rutherfordium Rf 107 Bohrium Bh 108 Hahnium Hn 109 Meitnerium Mt

SOURCE: International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry

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