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IYPT Elements

IYPT 2019 Elements 102: Nobelium: A three-way fight for an element discovery

Element 102 in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is nobelium, named after the founder of the Nobel Prizes and an element whose discovery was contested by three different teams of scientists.

Nobelium is named after Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and the founder of the Nobel Prizes. A team of scientists from Sweden were the first to claim its discovery, in 1957, but this was disputed. The trouble with trying to make superheavy elements is that their atoms can exist for just seconds or even fractions of seconds. Because of this, scientists working on discovering these elements often have to identify them by looking for characteristic elements that the element they’re looking for is predicted to decay into.

Another issue for the discovery of superheavy elements is that other, independent teams of scientists generally need to replicate the discovery before it can be confirmed. This was the problem for the Swedish team – an American team in Berkeley was unable to replicate the results that they had seen.

The Swedish team, later retracted their claim, seemingly leaving the road clear for the Berkeley team to stake their claim. They claimed to have discovered element 102 in 1958; though the Swedish team’s work had been shown to be erroneous, the Berkeley team decided they would still use their suggested name for the new element: nobelium.

But the story doesn’t end there. Meanwhile, Russian scientists had been trying to create element 102, and in the early 1960s racked up a series of results which strongly evidenced its creation. They proposed the name joliotium for the element, after Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize-winning daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie.

For several decades, both names for the element were used in different parts of the world. Eventually, in 1992, IUPAC, the body that presides over element discoveries, somewhat controversially ruled that only the Russian team had provided strong evidence of the creation of the element. In the arguments that followed this ruling, which included arguments over the names of several other subsequent elements, the decision was eventually made to retain the name ‘nobelium’ for the element. So, despite the Russian team getting the credit for discovering the element, the Swedish and American teams ended up with the name they’d suggested on the periodic table.

Remember, you can keep track of all of the previous entries in this series on the site here, or on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s dedicated page.