in your element Meitnerium in tribute Adrian Dingle tells the story of how the name of element 109 represents the lasting recognition that one of the greatest nuclear physicists was in danger of never receiving.
hile the furious and well- and 19975, producing two and twelve atoms, documented bickering between respectively. In addition Dubna and Berkeley Cold War adversaries over each confirmed the existence of 266Mt through W 208 the discovery priority for many of the another reaction, this time between Pb transfermium elements was raging in the and 59Co, with the Americans reporting it 1950s and 1960s (mostly involving the in 20096. Current research has identified a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory number of isotopes ranging in mass from and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research 266 to 278 — almost exclusively α-emitters — in Dubna), a new player in super-heavy with 277Mt undergoing spontaneous fission. synthesis was emerging: the GSI Helmholtz Those isotopes have half-lives ranging from Centre for Heavy Ion Research, founded in just milliseconds to up to a few seconds, the Darmstadt in the old West Germany in 1969. heavier ones being the longest lived. It wasn’t long before the team there, led by Thus, it has not been possible to carry out Peter Armbruster and Gottfried Münzenberg, chemical studies on meitnerium (even at the laid claim to the syntheses of new elements, one-atom-at-a-time level), and its chemical starting with element 107 in 1981, and 109 a and physical properties remain largely those year later. In the original experiment that of educated speculation through theoretical yielded a single atom of what came to be calculation and by analogy with other group known as meitnerium, a 209Bi target was 9 and period 7 elements. These point to an bombarded with atoms of 58Fe. Analysis led incredibly dense solid metal element that to the detection of an unusual α-decay — resembles iridium in terms of its most likely determined to have been from an atom of oxidation states, with +3 being the most stable EVERETT COLLECTION HISTORICAL / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO STOCK / ALAMY HISTORICAL EVERETT COLLECTION 266109 — which was followed by a second in aqueous solution. A more recent study α-decay event from the resulting 262107 She played a pivotal role in understanding published in 2016 suggests the existence of a daughter nuclide1. nuclear fission and giving the first theoretical further isotope of meitnerium,282Mt (ref. 7), At the time of element 109’s discovery, explanation of the process together with that may have a more workable half-life (in IUPAC had stepped in to dissuade the her nephew Otto Frisch, accounting for excess of one minute), providing potential for premature suggestion of names for the puzzling chemical findings of Hahn further research. new elements, which conspicuously and Fritz Strassmann that bombarding At this time, meitnerium’s significance thus reflected discovery disputes. But the uranium with neutrons had produced lighter remains peripheral in terms of efficacy — but main reason meitnerium managed to elements. She was largely marginalized, it should not be underestimated as it reminds avoid the transfermium naming wars however, notoriously by Hahn, who despite us of an important part of history, scientific was because nobody else had claimed decades of productive collaboration, publicly and otherwise. ❐ priority for its discovery, which left the excluded her from the story of nuclear GSI group unchallenged in their suggestion, fission’s discovery. ADRIAN DINGLE, author of The Elements: formally accepted by IUPAC in 19972. Even though it did not seem like it at the An Encyclopedic Tour of the Periodic Table, Peter Armbruster described it in words time — with Hahn being solely awarded teaches at Westminster, 1424 West Paces that clearly allude to two major aspects of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his Ferry Road, Atlanta, Georgia 30327, USA. the intriguing life of nuclear physicist Lise discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei” — e-mail: [email protected] Meitner (pictured): “to render justice to a history has perhaps been kinder to Meitner: pages.com victim of German racism and to credit in her Nobel exclusion is now widely regarded as Twitter: @adchempages fairness a scientific life and work”3. unfair, and those who have an element named Meitner’s story is one of persecution (she after them are part of a far more exclusive References faced discrimination as a woman then as a club than that of the Nobel laureates. A 1. Münzenberg, G. et al. Z. Phys. A 309, 89–90 (1982). Jew, and was forced to flee Nazi Germany), further fitting tribute would be a significant, 2. Inorganic Chemistry Division Pure Appl. Chem. 69, 2471–2473 (1997). and one of a bitter quarrel with her long-time real-world application of meitnerium. 3. Armbruster, P. Lise Meitner (1878–1968) ‘Mother of Nuclear colleague and erstwhile friend, Otto Hahn. For now, any utility clearly remains in Structure Physics’ (GSI, 2001). the future. The bismuth/iron nuclear fusion 4. Münzenberg, G. et al. Z. Phys. A 330, 435–436 (1988). 5. Hofmann, S. et al. Z. Phys. A 358, 377–378 (1997). that had produced the original, single atom 6. Nelson, S. L. et al. Phys. Rev. C 79, 027605 (2009). of 266Mt in 1982 was replicated in both 19884 7. Hofmann, S. et al. Eur. Phys. J. A 52, 180 (2016). Sg Bh Hs Mt Ds Rg Cn Nh Fl Mc Lv Ts Og 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 830 NATURE CHEMISTRY | VOL 9 | AUGUST 2017 | www.nature.com/naturechemistry ©2017 Mac millan Publishers Li mited, part of Spri nger Nature. 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