Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Place at the Periodic Table: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Place at the Periodic Table: Books

Article excerpt

The international hunt for chemistry's 'missing links' makes for an engrossing tale, finds Alan Rocke.

A Tale of Seven Elements

By Eric Scerri

Oxford University Press 200pp, Pounds 12.99

ISBN 9780195391312

Published 18 July 2013

In 1789, a year marked by scientific as well as political revolution, the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier proposed the first list of chemical elements in the modern sense. He would lose his head in the Reign of Terror five years later, but his list of 33 "simple substances" survived. The race for new discoveries was on: by 1860, about five dozen elements were recognised. In 1869 Dmitri Mendeleev systematised this increasingly chaotic menagerie into his periodic table of the elements. From then on, chemists had at least a rough idea where to look to fill the holes in Mendeleev's tableau.

The periodic table of the late 19th century was organised according to increasing atomic weights, a good but (as it turned out) imperfect principle. Shortly before the Great War erupted, a young English physicist named Henry Moseley developed an instrumental means that could provide an unambiguous ordinal scale for the elements, soon to be called "atomic number". Moseley was killed in action in 1915, but others using his method quickly deduced that there were exactly seven mysteriously "missing" elements that formed random gaps in the table, between the lightest, hydrogen (number 1), and what was then the heaviest known, uranium (number 92). Their modern names are protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium. A highly competitive international hunt uncovered them all over the course of the interwar period and the Second World War.

Eric Scerri offers us a fascinating account of the discovery of these seven elements. Author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance (2007), Scerri is superbly qualified for this task: chemist, philosopher of science and historian, he is the foremost contemporary analyst of the periodic table. The cast of his engrossing tale includes dozens of scientists in many countries, avidly pursuing these last remaining prizes in the classic table of the elements. …

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