Blogging the Periodic Table: Promethium, Uranium Stole It’s Fire

A century ago, so few natural elements remained undiscovered, and so many scientists were scouring the Earth for the honor of finding them, that disputes over who discovered what first became commonplace. Scientists repeatedly shot down false claims, and acrimony could linger for years, even on a national level. In one dispute between French scientists and a team of Danish and Hungarian scientists, a French magazine sniffed that the whole thing “stinks of Huns,” as if Attila himself had discovered the element.

[But news of Promethium’s Discovery] in 1947, was strangely anticlimactic. Three scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory made the announcement at a scientific meeting that year—but revealed that theyd actually discovered it two years before and had sat on it. They had said nothing partly because of security restrictions at a national lab, but they also knew the delay wouldn’t matter: No one else was looking for the element. The media gave the announcement unenthusiastic coverage, calling the new element “not good for much.” Science had at last discovered the final natural element, completing the periodic table after almost a century of work, and few seemed to care. What happened?

Uranium and plutonium happened. Uranium was not new at the time but had newly discovered properties. A French chemist invalidating a premature claim by a German one had actually isolated pure uranium way back in the 1840s. But it remained little more than another metal until 1896. That year, Antoine Becquerel discovered radioactivity while experimenting with uranium salts. Then, an Austrian-German team announced in 1939 the discovery of uranium fission—that uranium atoms can split and start a self-sustaining and highly explosive chain reaction. Even without a world war looming, uranium would have become the most exciting element on the table. With the war, it became the only element worth bothering over.

via Blogging the Periodic Table: Uranium. 14 – By Sam Kean – Slate Magazine.

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