A Tale of Seven Elements

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Overview

In 1913, English physicist Henry Moseley established an elegant method for "counting" the elements based on atomic number, ranging them from hydrogen (#1) to uranium (#92). It soon became clear, however, that seven elements were mysteriously missing from the line up—seven elements unknown to science. In his well researched and engagingly narrative, Eric Scerri presents the intriguing stories of these seven elements— protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium. The book follows ...

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A Tale of Seven Elements

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Overview

In 1913, English physicist Henry Moseley established an elegant method for "counting" the elements based on atomic number, ranging them from hydrogen (#1) to uranium (#92). It soon became clear, however, that seven elements were mysteriously missing from the line up—seven elements unknown to science. In his well researched and engagingly narrative, Eric Scerri presents the intriguing stories of these seven elements— protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium. The book follows the historical order of discovery, roughly spanning the two world wars, beginning with the isolation of protactinium in 1917 and ending with that of promethium in 1945. For each element, Scerri traces the research that preceded the discovery, the pivotal experiments, the personalities of the chemists involved, the chemical nature of the new element, and its applications in science and technology. We learn for instance that alloys of hafnium—whose name derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen (hafnia)—have some of the highest boiling points on record and are used for the nozzles in rocket thrusters such as the Apollo Lunar Modules. Scerri also tells the personal tales of researchers overcoming great obstacles. We see how Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn—the pair who later proposed the theory of atomic fission—were struggling to isolate element 91 when World War I intervened, Hahn was drafted into the German army's poison gas unit, and Meitner was forced to press on alone against daunting odds. The book concludes by examining how and where the twenty-five new elements have taken their places in the periodic table in the last half century. A Tale of Seven Elements paints a fascinating picture of chemical research—the wrong turns, missed opportunities, bitterly disputed claims, serendipitous findings, accusations of dishonesty—all leading finally to the thrill of discovery.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
U.C.L.A. professor Scerri (The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance) details the fascinating backstories of the discoverers and discoveries of the last seven chemical elements in this engaging scientific history. The author begins by explaining how chemist Dimitri Mendeleev’s 19th-century periodic table not only organized atoms into families, but also revealed lacunae where yet-to-be-discovered atoms should fit. By 1913, the seven eponymous elements—protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine, and promethium—had been predicted but not yet found. Twentieth-century insights into atomic structure allowed English physicist Henry Moseley to reorganize the modern periodic table according to atomic number rather than weight, and modern physics gave scientists the tools to finally find the missing elements, from silvery protractinium to superhard rhenium and the rare earth element promethium. Scerri enriches each minihistory with anecdotes of bitter rivalries, professional and personal frustrations, “scientific chicanery,” and obsessive “pathological science” done in search of the hypothesized elements and the fame that would accompany their discovery. This brief and intriguing tale offers insights into the research process as well as the history of the periodic table as researchers vied to break new ground. (June)
From the Publisher
One of New Scientist's Best Books of 2013

"[This is a brilliant book about the interface of chemistry and physics. Above all, the stories argue powerfully for curiosity-driven research, and show how hard it is to see the wood for the trees in the thick of a scientific battle. They are powerful reminders, too, that the scientific method always allows the truth to shine through, you just have to be patient." —New Scientist

"Scerri's Tale gives an absorbing account of scientific process in the early 20th century, when nationalism drove chemists and physicists to seek the glory that would result from discovering a new element." — Science News

"[A]n excellent read, and it is warmly recommended to all students and practitioners of chemistry and related fields, and to all those who are interested in the history and the culture of science." —Structural Chemistry

"...these are fascinating stories." — Chemical & Engineering News

"Highly recommended for all curious science readers and historians of science" — Library Journal

"Scerri details the fascinating backstories of the discoverers and discoveries of the last seven chemical elements in this engaging scientific history." — Publishers Weekly

"Scerri's vivid storytelling, and the letters and journals he quotes, allow us to see chemistry, and science generally, as an essentially historical enterprise-a human adventure that shows the best, and sometimes the worst, of human nature." — from the preface by Oliver Sacks

"Few areas of chemistry have inspired such a competitive spirit and bruised so many egos as the discovery of new elements. Chemists will enjoy reading Scerri's illuminating and detailed account of the personal, political, and scientific tensions behind the true discoveries and the vanishing of many false identifications." — Peter Atkins

"Reading this book is like going away on holiday to an obscure little place you'd never normally think of visiting, and finding it packed with local interest and charm. Who would have thought that this odd collection of little-known elements would have so many stories to tell, so many characters and intrigues and eccentricities? For anyone curious about chemistry, it's a trip I can warmly recommend." — Philip Ball, author of Elements, A Very Short Introduction and Molecules, A Very Short Introduction.

"If you wish to deepen your understanding of the nature of the elements, and the nature of the men and women who made it their business to discover them, you can't go wrong with this delightful volume from the preeminent authority on the history and philosophy of the periodic table." — Theodore Gray, Popular Science columnist and author of The Elements, Mad Science, and Mad Science 2

"Attractive, Promising Reassessment Frames Particularly Helpful Teaching.
In short, an intriguing and worthwhile book!" — Martyn Poliakoff FRS, The University of Nottingham and a presenter of the YouTube channel www.periodicvideos.com

"This is a story of exploration at the boundaries of chemistry, as scientists searched for the missing elements which they knew must exist but had yet to be been found. Where were they hiding? What guided them in their search? And who finally found them? Scerri explains not only the science of their discoveries, but also tells equally intriguing stories of the people themselves. This remarkable and well-researched book is truly a goldmine of information." — John Emsley, author of Nature's Building Blocks

"Some of the best stories out involve elements you never talk about in chemistry classes. A Tale of Seven Elements picks out some of the best of those stories, and shows their deep relevance for understanding how modern science works." — Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb

"Each of Scerri's stories is a gem. Would not it be wonderful to learn school chemistry through such narratives? ...an excellent read, and it is warmly recommended to all students and practitioners of chemistry and related fields, and to all those who are interested in the history and the culture of science." — Structural Chemistry

"Mr. Scerri's outstanding book helps us understand the special spirit of chemistry, whose contribution to science and human experience emphasizes the crucible of experiment." —Wall Street Journal

"This book is both scholarly and accessible. Scerri draws on diverse fields to paint a thorough and nuanced picture of the history of the periodic table and the discovery of elements in the twentieth century...Like the best of Stephen Jay Gould's popular writing, the subject matter is explained clearly and lucidly without scrimping on the detail...it ought to dispel any simple idealism about chemistry and, hopefully, replace it with a strong sense of context and innumerable questions." — Nature Chemistry

"Eric Scerri is the wizard of the periodic table. He knows more about the chemistry student's bane, and about elements and their history, than pretty well anyone else, full stop. His book The Periodic Table is the ultimate history of the development of this distinctive layout of the elements showing their relationships." — Popular Science

"The book would be a good read for any chemist." — Chemistry and Industry

"...readers will enjoy the letters of sparring chemists in pursuit of credit as they insult and attempt to disprove each other's work." — Jacob Roberts, Chemical Heritage Magazine

"...this is one of those books not easy to put down once started - and you can't say that about many other contemporary books dealing with the history of our subject. Moreover, it's just been announced that this book has made it into the top 12 science books of 2013, as judged by the magazine New Scientist." — Alan Dronsfield, Historical Group of Royal Society of Chemistry, UK

"A worthy topic, and timely." — Chemistry World

"If you'd like to know about the stories and scientists of chemistry's greatest search, and see some acerbic correspondence along the way, then this is the book for you." — Daniel Johnson, Chemistry World

"[R]eaders will enjoy the letters of sparring chemists in pursuit of credit as they insult and attempt to disprove each other's work."
—Chemical Heritage

"A Tale of 7 Elements is addressed to everyone interested in the history of chemistry. ... It is enjoyable to read the book." —Angewandte Books

"A Tale of 7 Elements is an excellent narrative and the value of narratives in science and science education is highly stressed. I highly recommend this book to students and their teachers, scientists, and the interested public. —Journal of Chemical Education

Featured in the German matallurgy journal, Metall.

"I cannot look at the book through the eyes of someone who has never studied chemistry, but I am sure that those interested in the history of science will find interesting information that in it that is not so difficult to understand. To me, the book was not only a useful refresher of how the periodic table came into being, and how scientists pursued discovery of the individual elements. I have learned a lot of interesting facts that have somehow evaded my attention before." —Svetla Baykoucheva, Chemical Information Bulletin

"This is an interesting and readable book on the chemical elements and the Periodic Table. ... The book has some great quotations from letters and publications, fleshing out the history of these rare elements." —Chemistry in Action

"This new book ... is compact and well-presented; researched and referenced; and it has an excellent index. At its relatively modest price is makes for rewarding reading." —The Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

"A Tale of Seven Elements will be an enjoyable read for those with a chemistry background, but those who supervise research in other disciplines may also find it insightful." —Chemistry in New Zealand

Library Journal
Scerri (chemistry & biochemistry, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; The Periodic Table: Its Story and Significance) presents a narrative about seven elements missing from Henry Moseley's 1913 counting method for elements in the periodic table. These "missing" elements, discovered from 1920 to 1945, are scattered over the different groups in the table. The stories behind each one's discovery and uses provide insight into the social and political relationships among scientists of the time. Scerri does a nice job of connecting scientific insight into the isolation and discovery of each element with technical details. VERDICT With his mixed approach of using both the social and the scientific context to tell each element's story, Scerri supplements more specialized reference works and provides material for all scientists searching for further insight into the elements and the relationships among them. Recent popular works exploring the intersections between the personal and the scientific include Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon and William F. Bynum's A Little History of Science. This is highly recommended for all curious science readers and historians of science.—Elizabeth A. Brown, Binghamton Univ. Libs., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195391312
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/20/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 376,504
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Scerri is a leading philosopher of science specializing in the history and philosophy of the periodic table. He is also the founder and editor in chief of the international journal Foundations of Chemistry and has been a full-time lecturer at UCLA for the past twelve years where he regularly teaches classes of 350 chemistry students as well as classes in history and philosophy of science. He is the author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance and has given invited lectures all over the world.

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Table of Contents

Preface: What constitutes the discovery of an element?

Chapter 1.
Dalton, to the Discovery of the Periodic System

Chapter 2.
van den Broek, Moseley and the missing seven elements.

Chapter 3.
Element 91, protactinium

Chapter 4.
Element 72, hafnium

Chapter 5.
Element 75, rhenium

Chapter 6.
Element 43, technetium

Chapter 7.
Element 87, francium

Element 8.
Element 85, astatine

Chapter 9.
Element 61, promethium

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2013

    A first rate book by an expert on the science and history of the

    A first rate book by an expert on the science and history of the periodic table. This his latest of three books with Oxford University Press is directed at a wider audience and presents some intriguing scientific stories that one does not find in the usual sources and textbooks.
    Scerri's style is clear and informative. Chemistry and physics instructors at every level will draw inspiration from this book. Students of science and lay-readers will gain a better understanding of how science is actually carried out, complete with disputes and warring egos. Highly recommended. Great value for money too.

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