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A Brief History of Element Discovery, Synthesis, a

[Transcriber's Notes: The following errors are noted, but have not been corrected:

Page 17, footnote: "plutomium" should be "plutonium" Page 8: "knowns" should be "knows"

In element names, {} represents subscripted numbers and <> represents superscripted numbers. Readers may also refer to the HTML version of the text, in which super and subscripted numbers are represented visually.

Italic emphasis is indicated by surrounding the word with _underscores_.

Greek letters in the original text are marked in brackets, e. g. [alpha] or [gamma].

Table I (THE TRANSURANIUM ELEMENTS) has been moved from pages 12-13, in the middle of the book, to the end of the text.]


Glen W. Watson September 1963


LAWRENCE RADIATION LABORATORY University of California Berkeley and Livermore

Operating under contract with the United States Atomic Energy Commission

[Illustration: Radioactive elements: alpha particles from a speck of radium leave tracks on a photographic emulsion. (Occhialini and Powell, 1947)]


It is well known that the number of elements has grown from four in the days of the Greeks to 103 at present, but the change in methods needed for their discovery is not so well known. Up until 1939, only 88 naturally occurring elements had been discovered. It took a dramatic modern technique (based on Ernest O. Lawrence's Nobel-prize-winning atom smasher, the cyclotron) to synthesize the most recently discovered elements. Most of these recent discoveries are directly attributed to scientists working under the Atomic Energy Commission at the University of California's Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley.

But it is apparent that our present knowledge of the elements stretches back into history: back to England's Ernest Rutherford, who in 1919 proved that, occasionally, when an alpha particle from radium strikes a nitrogen atom, either a proton or a hydrogen nucleus is ejected; to the Dane Niels Bohr and his 1913 idea of electron orbits; to a once unknown Swiss patent clerk, Albert Einstein, and his now famous theories; to Poland's Marie Curie who, in 1898, with her French husband Pierre laboriously isolated polonium and radium; back to the French scientist H. A. Becquerel, who first discovered something he called a "spontaneous emission of penetrating rays from certain salts of uranium"; to the German physicist W. K. Roentgen and his discovery of x rays in 1895; and back still further.

During this passage of scientific history, the very idea of "element" has undergone several great changes.

The early Greeks suggested earth, air, fire, and water as being the essential material from which all others were made. Aristotle considered these as being combinations of four properties: hot, cold, dry, and moist (see Fig. 1).

[Illustration: Fig. 1. The elements as proposed by the early Greeks.]

Later, a fifth "essence," ether, the building material of the heavenly bodies was added.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) introduced the three alchemical symbols salt, sulfur, and mercury. Sulfur was the principle of combustability, salt the fixed part left after burning (calcination), and mercury the essential part of all metals. For example, gold and silver were supposedly different combinations of sulfur and mercury.

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