Chapter 12: Political Elements

Renea Austin

Synopsis

Elements of the periodic table have often influenced the course of history because of their properties and reaction to other elements. The seven elements covered in chapter twelve of The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean have greatly influenced politics and history. This chapter discusses elements discovered by Nobel prize-winning scientists in the early twentieth century. As scientists were studying these newfound elements, the world was at war and many scientists took refuge in other countries to escape Nazi rule. As a result of this, these elements and the chemists who discovered and studied them vastly affected history. Without the discovery and naming of these elements, the society we have presently may not have existed at all.


Image Source:

The Disappearing Spoon [Photograph]. (2010). Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1OTMJFr

Cm (Curium)

Atomic number: 96

Mass: 247

Period: 7

Group: none

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 4f14 5d10 6p6 7s2 5f7 6d1

Classification: actinide metal


Discovered in 1944 by three chemists at the University of California Berkeley, curium is the ninety-sixth element on the periodic table. Curium is not found naturally and was created in a laboratory by scientists bombarding an isotope of plutonium with alpha particles. As a result of this, curium has only been produced in miniscule amounts (Jefferson Labs). Curium can form compounds with many elements, including oxygen, chlorine, and bromine. Despite scholars and scientists studying this element, no one has found a practical use for curium.


Though curium may not presently have a use, the element's history is incredibly significant. Curium was named for French scientists, Pierre and Marie Curie, whose contribution to science was rewarded with a Nobel prize and leukemia from exposure to radioactive elements. As Sam Kean writes in The Disappearing Spoon, "[The Curies' research] took years of oppressively tedious work, but the labor culminated in two new elements, and was consummated with... another Nobel Prize in 1911, this one in chemistry" (ch. 12, pg. 205). Though Pierre and Marie did not discover curium, their documentation of polonium and radium, as well as extensive research on radioactivity, earned them recognition for their work years later.


Sources:

Science Notes. Curium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/96-Curium-Tile.png


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Curium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table

Po (Polonium)

Atomic number: 84

Mass: 209

Period: 6

Group: 16

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 4f14 5d10 6p4

Classification: metalloid


Identified in 1898, polonium was discovered by physicists Pierre and Marie Curie while experimenting with pitchblende, a radioactive mineral. Though polonium is naturally occurring, this element is rarely found and is typically produced when other elements decay. Polonium is not found in compounds because with such a short half-life, the element decays quickly (Jefferson Labs). While the most common uses are heating spacecraft, eliminating dust around camera lenses, and getting rid of static electricity in manufacturing, this element's importance cannot be overstated. This poisonous element was the trigger for the first atomic bomb, playing a much more important role than earning the Curies the 1898 Nobel Prize.


Polonium is named for Marie Curie's native country, Poland. By naming this newly discovered element after her home country, Curie expected the world to regard Poland with more respect. In the midst of World War II, the political crisis in Europe caused many refugee scientists to flee countries such as Germany and Poland. As stated in The Disappearing Spoon, "The empires surrounding Poland... have long held war scrimmages on this flat, undefended turf and have taken turns carving up 'God's playground' politically" (ch. 12, pg. 203). This refers to the ever-changing borders of Poland due to war in surrounding countries. As a result, polonium, one of the most radioactive elements on the periodic table, influenced the politics of the early twentieth century.


Sources:

Marie Curie - Biographical. (2014). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Nobel Prize website: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1903/marie-curie-bio.html


Science Notes. Polonium [Diagram]. Retrieved from Science Notes. Curium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/96-Curium-Tile.png


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Polonium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele084.html

Lu (Lutetium)

Atomic number: 71

Mass: 174.96

Period: 6

Group: 3

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 4f14 5d10

Classification: lanthanide metal


Discovered in 1907 by the French scientist, Georges Urbain, lutetium has an interesting history. Though the element is not artificially produced by chemists, lutetium is expensive for scientists to prepare because the element is not found in nature on its own. When first identified, Urbain had recently split the mineral, gadolinite, into two elements, neo-ytterbium and lutecium (Jefferson Labs). Until that moment, gadolinite was thought to be made up of only ytterbium, so Urbain faced doubt in his theory from the scientific community. However, with many resources and experiments, his idea was proven correct, and this unknown substance was isolated and later renamed lutetium.


Named for the Latin equivalent of a famous European city, lutetium takes its name from Paris, or Lutetia in the time of the Roman Empire. While this element is currently used as a promising experimental cancer treatment and as a means to break down petroleum, lutetium also helped to place other elements on the periodic table. When studying element number seventy-two, hafnium, scientists could not determine where to place it on the periodic table. "No one knew whether to tack it onto the hard-to-separate rare earth metals... or to provisionally classify it as a transition metal," writes Sam Kean in The Disappearing Spoon (ch. 12, pg. 211). Eventually, chemists determined hafnium to be a transition metal, and element seventy-two found a home in group four of the periodic table. While this may not seem like a huge breakthrough, lutetium played a vital role in the placement of newly discovered elements and continues to show promise in the medical field.


Sources:

Science Notes. Lutetium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/?attachment_id=348


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Lutetium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele071.html

Hf (Hafnium)

Atomic number: 72

Mass: 178.49

Period: 6

Group: 4

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 4f14 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 5d10 6p1

Classification: transition metal


Detected in 1923 by chemists, Dirk Coster and Charles de Hevesy, hafnium is the seventy-second element on the period table, briefly discussed in the previous section on lutetium. These scientists happened upon this element while performing an x-ray spectroscopy, in which scientists can determine the energy of photons. While not found naturally, this element can be found in compounds with elements such as oxygen, chlorine, or fluorine (Jefferson Labs). Typically, hafnium is extracted in a similar way to zirconium, but it is by the process of x-ray spectroscopy these scientists discovered a new element. However, once they had isolated this element, chemists had difficulty pinning down exactly what category this element fell under.


While scientists were initially confused about where to put this element on the periodic table, they eventually placed it in group four with other transition metals because of shared characteristics. This element has the highest melting point of any compound, so hafnium serves a practical purpose as the control rods in a nuclear reactor. This useful metal, also used for alloying metal and manufacturing kitchenware derived its name from an interesting Latin source. As established in The Disappearing Spoon, "They named it hafnium, from Hafnia, the Latin name for Copenhagen" (ch. 12, pg. 212). As with many of the elements, hafnium is named for the important European capital in which it was discovered. While the discovery of any element is new and exciting, hafnium proved to scientists that any elusive element can be found and ordered into the periodic table.


Sources:

Science Notes. Hafnium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/periodic-table-element-cells/#jp-carousel-4532


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Hafnium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele072.html

Pa (Proactinium)

Atomic number: 91

Mass: 231.03

Period: 7

Group: none

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 4f14 5d10 6p6 7s2 5f2 6d1

Classification: actinide metal


Identified in 1913 by scientists, Kasimir Fajans and O. H. Gohring, protactinium was initially called something else due to its short half life. With no stable isotopes and a half life just over one minute, this actinide metal was first called brevium. While chemists knew protactinium existed before, this element was first isolated in 1934 by Aristid Grosse in Poland (Jefferson Labs). Protactinium is particularly unique because it is one of the few elements to have no stable isotopes. As a result of this element's formation from decaying uranium ore, it is highly radioactive and poisonous.


Protactinium is not found in compounds because the element decays so quickly, also making it one of the rarest elements on the periodic table. Because this element does not last long once found in uranium ore, protactinium is expensive to produce and buy.

Its quick rate of decay results in actinium, element 89 on the periodic table. Sam Kean writes in The Disappearing Spoon, "[Scientists] rechristened it protactinium, or 'parent of actinium,' the element into which it (eventually) decayed" (ch. 12, pg. 215). This incredibly short half-life creates a highly radioactive and dangerous element to handle. Due to its radioactivity, the most stable isotope, protactinium-231, is only used for scientific research purposes.


Sources:

Science Notes. Protactinium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/?attachment_id=368


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele091.html

La (Lanthanum)

Atomic number: 57

Mass: 138.9

Period: 6

Group: none

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 5d1

Classification: lanthanide metal


Discovered in 1839 by a Swedist scientist, Carl Gustaf Mosander, lanthanum is used for many lighting purposes in the film business. While this is a naturally occurring element, it took scientists a long time to understand how this element forms. Typically, lanthanum is found in a compound called lanthana which is two parts lanthanum and three parts oxygen (Jefferson Labs). This compound is more commonly referred to as monazite sand, which has been mined in the state of North Carolina. This mining is a result of lanthanum comprising a small percentage of the earth's crust.


While this element is fairly abundant, it is often bonded to other elements, making lanthanum difficult to isolate. Lanthanum, like many other elements, gets its name from the Latin language, and means "to lie hidden". For a long time, scientists did not understand where lanthanum and other elements with f-orbitals should be placed on the periodic table. Sam Kean explains in The Disappearing Spoon, "The lanthanides start with lanthanum, element fifty-seven, and their proper home on the table baffled and bedeviled chemists well into the twentieth century" (ch. 3, pg. 32). While lanthanum is significant for naming the section of elements called lanthanides, this element has a practical use in projector lighting in the theatre business. In addition to its uses in stage lighting, lanthanum holds a promising future in the world of studio photography.


Sources:

Science Notes. Lanthanum [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/?attachment_id=334


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Lanthanum. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele057.html

Mt (Meitnerium)

Atomic number: 109

Mass: 278

Period: 7

Group: 9

Electron configuration: 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 4f14 5d10 6s2 6p6 5f14 6d7 7s2

Classification: transition metal


Identified in Darmstadt, Germany by Peter Armbruster and Gottfried Munzenber in 1982, meitnerium is one of the most radioactive elements on the periodic table. As an artificially produced element, meitnerium is unnatural and produced only in labs. Only minute amounts of meitnerium have ever been made, so this element has never been found in a compound (Jefferson Labs). As a highly radioactive and unnatural element, meitnerium's only practical use is to aid scientists in research. Perhaps the future will bring more uses as scientists discover more about this rare element.


This element is not found in abundance due to meitnerium being artificially produced.

Scientists named this element after chemist, Lise Meitner, who gave the first explanation for the atomic process of fission, or the splitting of the nucleus. Her contribution to science is vast, impacting many aspects of the world today. When discussing Meitner's accomplishments, Sam Kean writes, "[T]he committee soon crowned Meitner with a far more exclusive honor than a prize given yearly" (ch. 12, pg. 217). Scientists named this new element after Meitner for her work as a chemist many years before. Without Meitner's contributions, no modern country would have the ability to make nuclear weapons or produce nuclear energy.


Sources:

Science Notes. Meitnerium [Diagram]. Retrieved from http://sciencenotes.org/?attachment_id=4450


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental - The Element Meitnerium. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Jefferson Labs website: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele109.html

Summary

While the elements discussed in this chapter of The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean impacted the politics of the early twentieth century, they also shaped modern society by affecting major events in history such as World War II and the use of the first nuclear weapon. Most elements in this chapter are either radioactive or artificially produced, and many played an important role in making the first atomic bomb. While this is not an event in history anyone wants to be known for, these elements and the scientists who discovered them were highly influential in forming today's society. Without these elements, the world we live in today would not be the same.