A bitter dispute over the greatest honor in science has finally ended after smoldering behind the scenes for more than 20 years, scientists announced here.
It did not involve the Nobel Prize, which many laymen regard as science's highest tribute. Rather, it centered on who should be namesake for a group of chemical elements discovered decades ago but never officially named.Elements are the fundamental substances - like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen - that make up people, food, soil, stars and everything else in the universe. They are listed on the Periodic Table, the chart that hangs in school chemistry classes.
"It's a greater honor than the Nobel Prize," renowned chemist Glenn Seaborg said of being selected as namesake for an element. "A thousand years from now, these names will still be in use, while few people will recognize 20th century Nobel Prize winners."
Seaborg should know. As a Nobel laureate, he was selected in 1994 as namesake for element No. 106 (seaborgium). Rejection of that name by an international science group helped to trigger the controversy that ended here.
"This is a tremendous advance," John A. Secrist III said in an interview. "The controversy has dragged on far too long, and the first group of names was so poorly conceived and inappropriate that we could not accept them."
Secrist chairs an American Chemical Society (ACS) panel on nomenclature, or naming, of chemicals. He is vice president of the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Ala.
The panel, convened during the ACS's national meeting here, voted to accept a revised slate of element names proposed by the International Union for Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). IUPAC is an international body that adopts official names used in chemistry.
ACS rejected an earlier slate of names proposed by IUPAC. In an unprecedented step, ACS decided to adopt its own names for the elements, names that differed substantially from IUPAC's names.
Since the dispute began in 1994, scientists around the world have been uncertain what names to use for the elements. Some used ACS names or IUPAC names. Others favored names proposed by Russian scientists, and still others used strange-sounding interim names like "unnilhexium" for element 106 or "unnilseptium" for element No. 107.
The ACS's acceptance of the names was critical. As the world's biggest scientific organization, it publishes numerous scientific journals and books. Outside textbook and journal publishers rely on it for guidance in using uniform names. Without its acceptance, element names would not go into wide use.
The elements occupy positions numbering 101-109 on the Periodic Table. They are extremely heavy elements that do not exist naturally on Earth. Rather, scientists create them in atom smashers that fuse atoms of lighter elements.
Traditionally, scientists who discover an element have the right to pick its name. American, Russian, and German discoverers of elements 101-109 picked names. The names never went into use because of disputes over who first discovered the elements. An international panel resolved that dispute in the early 1990s.
But when the scientists proposed names, IUPAC rejected many of the selections and substituted its own names.
Especially galling to American scientists, Secrist noted, was IUPAC's rejection of the name "seaborgium" for Element No. 106. Seaborg played a key role in discovering that element, among many others.
"The new slate of names proposed by IUPAC was not perfect," Secrist noted. "But overall, the names do a very good job of meeting ACS standards. Everyone is happy that the dispute is finally over."
The new element names and symbols are: No. 101, Mendelevium (Md); No. 102, Nobelium (No); No. 103, Lawrencium (Lr); No. 104, Rutherfordium (Rf), No. 105 Dubnium (Db); No. 106, Seaborgium (Sg); No. 107, Bohrium (Bh), No. 108, Hassium (Hs); and No. 109, Meitnerium (Mt).
They are named for Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who introduced the Periodic Table; Alfred Nobel, who originated the Nobel Prizes; American physicist E. O. Lawrence; British physicist Ernest Rutherford; Dubna, a Russian town that was a center for heavy element research; Seaborg; Danish physicist Niels Bohr; Hassia, a region in southwestern Germany; and German physicist Lise Meitner.
Resolution of the conflict clears the way for naming recently discovered elements No. 110, 111 and 112.