What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul
Aug03

What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul

This post was originally published at Scientific American's Guest Blog. Don't forget to check out all the contributions to the Scientific American Blog Network's Chemistry Day! By 1992, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and the entire world's political, economic, and military alliances were in the throes of transformation. But you could forgive officials at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) if they didn't notice much of a difference. At the time, they were still embroiled in a very Cold War-era standoff. At issue was one of the biggest prizes in the field of chemistry-- naming rights for new elements in the periodic table. In the 1960s, American and Russian laboratories both laid claim to the discoveries of elements 104 and 105. And IUPAC had to play the role of arbiter. It took until 1997 to sort out the squabble, and along the way, several other new elements got dragged into the controversy, which some nuclear chemists dubbed the Transfermium Wars. In the end, the Americans got their way on element 104, which was officially named Rutherfordium, in honor of British chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford. Element 105, Dubnium, is named for the Russian town of Dubna. Belying the decades-long conflict, IUPAC explained its decision in rather understated terms: The Commission hopes that the present collection of names will be accepted as a fair compromise between the various claims and suggestions. A Bunsen burner, named for German chemist Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen (Wikimedia Commons/NASA) All researchers name the trappings of their discipline-- whether elements, equations, or species. To some extent, the naming happens as a matter of convenience, as a form of shorthand to convey a complex concept to a fellow scientist. But hidden within those monikers are the stories of science: sweeping triumphs, competition, the ascent of young stars. Chemists have a particular affinity for names-- they name not only their elements but also their lab equipment, their reactions, their catalysts, even portions of catalysts called ligands, which modify catalyst activity. Unlike the elements, these namings aren't regulated by IUPAC. Instead, they're an informal process dictated by the community that plays out in the scholarly literature, in books, and at conferences. As a result, they are a fascinating window on how discoveries in chemistry become chemistry fundamentals, not to mention a way to learn the tales of legends in the field. Among the simplest examples of 2010's Nobel-winning chemistry Consider 2010 chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard Heck, retired from the University of Delaware. Heck shared the prize with Ei-Ichi Negishi of Purdue University and Akira Suzuki of Japan's Hokkaido University. Each of the three chemists has...

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