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Rutherfordium is an element more famed for its names than its properties or uses. It was also my baptism of fire into the international politics and sensitivities of naming new elements.

In 1985, I innocently wrote a piece on the element titled “What’s in a Name?” for Chemistry International, the newsmagazine of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

At that time, I had only just joined the IUPAC secretariat staff in Oxford as information officer. My duties included editing the magazine.

The piece was short and, in my view, innocuous and factual. It alluded to the fact that the element, which has the atomic number 104, was first reported by Georgii Flerov and colleagues at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, in 1964. The Russian scientists named the element “kurchatovium” in honor of nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov (1903–60), who was a driving force behind the Soviet Union’s race to develop the atomic bomb. For the next 10 years or so, the Dubna group published numerous papers on the element, including papers in 1969 and 1970 that provided evidence of the production of the isotope rutherfordium-259.

Glenn T. Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso, and coworkers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory considered the Dubna discovery in 1964 to be invalid, saying it was based on the misinterpretation of experimental data. In 1969, the Berkeley group produced two isotopes of the element, Rf-258 and Rf-260, and laid claim to its discovery. They named the element “rutherfordium” after New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937), who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.”

In view of the wrangle over the discovery and names of element 104 and other transfermium elements, IUPAC adopted a provisional naming system for these elements based on their atomic numbers. Rutherfordium was named “unnilquadium,” which is the Latin word code for 104 (un = 1, nil = 0, and quad = 4). Its symbol was “Unq.”

Seaborg thought these IUPAC names were “unnecessarily cumbersome” and served “no useful purpose” (C&EN, May 13, 1985, page 2). I quoted the letter in the item I wrote for Chemical International in 1985.

Three weeks after my piece was published, I attended the 33rd IUPAC general assembly in Lyon, France. One evening, while relaxing with some secretariat colleagues in the bar of the hotel where we were staying, several members of IUPAC’s Commission on Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry joined us.

After some initial pleasantries, they tackled me about the piece, and it soon became obvious that they were unhappy with it. They did not question that it was accurate. What they disliked was that it had been published in IUPAC’s house magazine. They suggested that the magazine was not a suitable forum for raising and debating such highly contentious issues as the discovery and naming of the transfermium elements. I drank another beer while they informed me that IUPAC had formal channels and procedures for dealing with such controversies.

I soon learned that the procedures were, perhaps necessarily for democratic reasons, slow and cumbersome. In 1985, IUPAC and the International Union of Pure & Applied Physics decided to set up an ad hoc working group to consider the competing claims for priority of discovery of elements 101–112. The group first met in Bayeux, France, in February 1988. It published its final report five years later in August 1993.

For rutherfordium, it concluded: “The chemical experiments in Dubna [published in 1969 and 1970] and the Berkeley experiments [published in 1969] were essentially contemporaneous and each show that element 104 had been produced. Credit should be shared.”

In 1994, IUPAC revealed its recommended names for elements 101–109. Element 104 was named “dubnium” after the Dubna group and element 106, “rutherfordium.” Seaborg and colleagues at Berkeley were astonished, calling the names “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “outrageous,” and “almost unbelievable” (C&EN, Oct. 10, 1994, page 4). They wanted element 106, which was undisputedly discovered by the Berkeley group, to be named “seaborgium.”

Controversy and confusion now prevailed. An element that had had an occasional, fleeting, and useless existence now appeared in various English-language publications around the word under five different names: rutherfordium, kurchatovium, dubnium, unnilquadium, and element 104.

In June 1995, the American Chemical Society decided to adopt the names rutherfordium and seaborgium for elements 104 and 106, respectively, for its journals and magazines.

At its 38th general assembly, held in 1995 at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, IUPAC decided to reconsider its recommended names. Following a further two years of consultation, the union ratified a slate of names for elements 101–109 at its 39th general assembly in Geneva in 1997. The names met with widespread approval. Elements 105 and 106 were named dubnium (symbol Db) and seaborgium (Sg), respectively, and element 104, 28 years after its discovery, was finally named rutherfordium (Rf).

London-based C&EN Senior Correspondent Michael Freemantle reports primarily on developments in European chemistry and science policy. He was IUPAC information officer from 1985 to 1994.


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Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Name: Named after New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford.
Atomic mass: (261).
History: Production first reported by a team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, in 1964. Albert Ghiorso and his team at the University of California, Berkeley, produced a different isotope in 1969. IUPAC recommended that the discovery be shared.
Occurrence: Artificially produced.
Appearance: Metal of unknown color.
Behavior: Intensely radioactive.
Uses: No commercial uses.

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