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Defunct chemical elements

Updated: Apr 26

It’s fascinating to learn of what was previously accepted but no longer is. We used to think the world was flat, and we used to think eating cholesterol was unhealthy. Especially fascinating are changes that have been made to the periodic table, because it’s a touchstone everyone is familiar with, its elements are in a special way universal (in a way that e.g. amino acids are not quite), and an element’s discoverer gets to name it. That last point is fun because it means elements sometimes have their names canceled.

My dad recently gave me a book he found at a used book festival, back home in Sweden. It is CRC’s eighteenth edition of the Handbook of Chemistry & Physics, published in September 1933. (Before the internet, the dense and banal Handbook was indispensable to engineers and scientists for looking up properties of chemicals and materials.) He knows this is an ideal gift–I have a small collection (fewer than 10) of old, rare, or otherwise unusual books, and this fit nicely into my gaggle of texts.

A word caught my eye when I was absent-mindedly thumbing through it for the first time. I noticed “alabamine” listed as an element. I knew, precious reader, that this is not the name of any element.

This finding prompted me to read through all the elements listed, which led me to discover four that now have been renamed. Such a name change can mean only one thing: that the original discovery was determined to be invalid, and the faux-discoverer no longer retained naming rights.

These are not the only “false” elements of history–they are just the only ones that happened to be falsely believed in 1933, when the book was published. The four elements were:

Masurium (false discovery 1925 in Germany)

Element 43 

Now called Technetium (1937 @ Palermo & @ UCBerkeley)

Illinium (false discovery 1926 @ UIUC)

element 61

Now called Promethium (1945 @ Oakridge)

Alabamine (false discovery 1931 @ Auburn; discredited 1934 @ UCBerkeley)

Element 85 

Now called Astatine (1940 @ UCBerkeley)

Virginium (false discovery 1930 @ Auburn; discredited 1934 @ UCBerkeley)

Element 87 

Now called Francium (1939 @ Curie Institute)

Alabamine and Virginium were reported to be discovered by Fred Allison, a professor at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn). He used his so-called “magneto-optic method,” which was later completely discredited. The abstract for Allison’s 1930 methods paper is here in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The abstract says the technique involves “investigations of the time lag differences of the Faraday effect behind the magnetic field in certain liquids as a function of the wavelength of the light used.” I haven’t read the paper, but I can’t think of a physical mechanism by which circularly polarized light would tell you much about the nucleus, especially since the light seems to have been in the visible spectrum.

Also, I looked up the elements, and all half lives of astatine are less than 10 hours and those of francium are less than 30min. Allison had claimed to have found it in some naturally occurring ore, which we can now know for sure would have been impossible.

For masurium/technetium, the legitimacy wars lasted for years. A much better summary than I can give is found here. A relatively recent analysis of the historical record that was actually in favor of masurium's priority is here, though the arguments of the piece have apparently been entirely invalidated.

Rounding it off: the sample the UIUC scientists used to “discovery” illinium was later determined to be simply praseodymium (59) and neodymium (60) plus impurities.

(I realized that element 87 could be called the element of the American revolution. The Virginia colony had far more than its fair share of revolutionaries, and the French bankrolled the Continental Army. So really the renaming was between friends. I digress.)

As Sam Kean points out in one of the most entertaining non-fiction books you’ll ever read, this is a special time for the periodic table. All the elements on the first seven rows have been discovered (there used to be gaps on the bottom row—113, 115, 117 and 118 were the last to be filled [link]), and yet no elements of the eighth row have been discovered at all. It’s unlikely that we’ll have any name revisions for a while, but it will be fun to see if any politics pop up around future discoveries of elements like 119, 120, and 124.


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