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. Continue reading