The Sceptical Chymist | Another four bricks in the wall (part III)

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Editor’s note: this post written by Brett Thornton and Shawn Burdette is a follow-up piece to the blog post ‘New kids on the p-block‘, the Commentary article ‘Another four bricks in the wall‘ published in the April 2016 issue of Nature Chemistry, and the blog post ‘Another four bricks in the wall (part II)‘.


Following IUPAC’s announcement of the assignment of discovery priority to elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 on 30 December 2015, the anxious wait began for the announcement of the actual proposed names. The discovery of elements has become increasingly rare, and the simultaneous confirmation and naming of four, though widely expected since the original reports had been around for some time, is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event. IUPAC’s actions are simply the acknowledgement of the discovery honour, which is then followed by the naming of the element.

While waiting to learn what names the research groups in Japan (RIKEN), Russia (JINR), and the United States (ORNL & LLNL) would propose, we surveyed the landscape for what those names might be. As with past discovery announcements, speculation on element names is always rampant. Suggestions came from scientists, media members and the public at large. Proposals referencing figures from pop-culture especially were reported widely. Assuming that the names might be announced quickly, we put together our best predictions for the Sceptical Chymist blog on 26 January 2016 with a panel that also included Philip Ball, Kat Day, and Eric Scerri. We followed this up with a more in-depth Commentary discussing the possible names, published in the April 2016 issue of Nature Chemistry. How sagacious were our 26 January predictions? The first blog post included the names of all four of the elements, albeit on a longer list of 46 possibilities.

‘Moscovium’ was our top prediction, with 4 of our 5 experts guessing this would be the chosen for element 115. Kat was the outlier as she advocated for the longshots based on cultural or mythological sources. Picking moscovium hardly indicates that any of our panelists were blessed with the gift of clairvoyance. The name had been pushed by the Russian JINR group in the past, and they had been very public about their intentions to propose this name. Interestingly however, there seems to have been some information lost in translation when explaining the chosen name to the public. Several news outlets have reported that moscovium was named for the city of Moscow; however, the IUPAC report clearly states that the name is meant to recognize the Moscow region (PDF link here). For those unfamiliar with Russian geography, Moscow is the name of both a city and an oblast (province) that contains the city of Moscow, and the city of Dubna where the JINR is located. Dubna is approximately 130 km (81 miles) north of Moscow on the the northern edge of the Moscow oblast. Conflating the city and oblast of Moscow is the equivalent of saying New York City is the same thing as the entire state of New York.

For element 115, there were also strong indications that the name would refer to Japan in some way. Since RIKEN documents had mentioned the name ‘japonium’, we assigned it the highest odds followed by ‘nipponium’, ‘nihonium’ and ‘rikenium’. Once again 4 out of 5 panelists chose either a traditional pronunciation or the exonym for the nation of Japan. Only Brett correctly picked nihonium, although Eric and Shawn deserve partial credit for chosing ‘nipponium’ since even the Japanese people can’t come to a consensus on how to pronounce the name. Philip’s rationale that ‘japonium’ might better advertise the scientific contribution to the world, may have been trumped by the researchers’ desire to connect with the Japanese people with nihonium. Current and future generations of Japanese students can now look to the periodic table and see a clear emblem of their homeland’s scientific contributions. Although the IUPAC document does not state so explicitly, ‘nipponium’ seems to have been disallowed because of the invalidated discovery of element 43/nipponium (technetium), which appeared on some periodic tables in the early 20th century. The discoverers did note that nihonium also pays homage to Masataka Ogawa, who authored the element 43/nipponium report. Following recent studies, some investigators have postulated that Ogawa actually might have isolated, but misidentified element 75/rhenium before its recognized discovery. Regardless, Ogawa is obviously a revered figure in Japanese science as one of the founding fathers of chemistry in their country.

Without many clues about the possible choices for elements 117 and 118, our list of predictions then got a bit distracted. Wishful thinking may have clouded our judgement somewhat as we proposed many names based on historical chemists, Greek- and Latin-derived names, and even a bit of Slavic and Japanese mythology. As we alluded to in the Commentary, recent naming trends have generally not borrowed heavily from history, mythology, or Greek and Latin. Astatine and technetium, named in 1947, were the last Greek-derived names. Mythology-derived names ended with plutonium.

‘Quercine’ for 117 was Brett’s brainchild, a clever idea that evoked Oak Ridge, Tennessee in a subtle way, while honouring the Latin/Greek source tradition for halogen names. A fusion of both the traditional practices and modern naming trends. We ranked ‘quercine’ somewhat higher than ‘tennessine’/’tennessium’, which Shawn suggested, but at unfavourable odds. In the interim period between the publication of the first blog post and the Commentary, we gravitated toward ‘tennessine’ as a more reasonable guess — it was one of the illustrated elements, along with ‘quercine’, in the commentary. Thankfully, no one (to our knowledge) used our odds to accept wagers. If they had, the unfortunate bookmakers would have been taken to the cleaners by the 750/1 longshot tennessine, which is now the name of element 117.

Historical scientists have fared well in transactinide element naming: Ernest Rutherford, Neils Bohr, Lise Meitner, Glenn Seaborg, Georgy Flerov, and the somewhat unusual choice of Copernicus, who lived centuries before the periodic table was devised, all have been honoured with spots on the periodic table. So we thought there was a chance that one of the obvious historical scientists who had a role in forming the periodic table might earn a spot this time. Our favourites included ghiorsium/ghiorsonine (Albert Ghiorso, co-discoverer of an incredible 12 elements), moselium/moseleyon (for Henry Moseley), or berzelium (for Jacob Berzelius, who with his students discovered or co-discovered 10 elements). From there, we searched for other scientists whose work is associated closely with new element research. Even without any hints from the researchers, we reasoned that Yuri Oganessian, a scientist at JINR, was the most likely scientist to be honored with an element name. The announcement of ‘oganesson’, with the traditional noble gas ‘–on’ suffix, validated that prediction. Notably, the 83-year old Oganessian is only the second living scientist, along with Glenn Seaborg, to have an element named for them.

In the end, we predicted them all, and usually for the right element. As individuals, Philip and Brett each got two right; Philip picked ‘japonium’ instead of nihonium, and ‘ghiorsonine’ instead of tennessine. Brett chose ‘quercine’ rather than tennessine, and ‘moseleyon’ rather than oganesson. Eric had moscovium, and a near-miss with ‘nipponium’ instead of nihonium. Kat, rolled the dice on longshots, ‘octarine’ certainly had a euphonius halogen sound. Shawn? A near-perfect 3.5/4. He predicted moscovium, tennessine, and oganesson. The only miss, ‘nipponium’, the aformentioned variation of nihonium.

What’s next? Well, we look forward to the next time elements are added to the periodic table, but we’re back to the grind of ‘–ium’ suffixed elements for a long, long time now. What names seem left out at this point? As far as scientist-honouring element names go, the continued omission of Ghiroso, Moseley, and Berzelius is striking.

It’s interesting to note that with moscovium, there are now three ‘nationalistic triplets of nation-state/region-city’ on the periodic table, for Russia, the United States, and Germany—all productive element-discovering nations:


Alternatively, one could include americium/californium/livermorium as a US triplet or germanium/rhenium/darmstadium for Germany. To which we humbly remind the Japanese RIKEN teams, don’t forget about Saitama prefecture and the city of Wako as you return to your particle accelerators! ORNL is also tantalizingly close to a triplet with americium/tennessine, so the obvious city choice from the blog list would be ‘oakridgium’, but they are welcome to steal ‘quercine’ and replace the halogen suffix to name ‘quercium’.

Finally, the choice of Mc as the symbol for moscovium is intriguing, as usually the symbol takes the first unused letter following the initial letter. Mo is already molybdenum, and we speculated that IUPAC would avoid Ms because of the mesyl group, but that didn’t stop the use of Ts for tennessine, despite confusion with tosyl group. So why Mc for moscovium? One possibility is the name of Moscow in cyrillic letters in Russian: ??????.

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