Elements of Invention

A recent scholarly collection examines the history of elements that never were.

By Ashley Augustyniak | June 29, 2016
Medusa Nebula

The Medusa Nebula as captured in 2015 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Early astronomers found elements both real and unreal in the spectra of nebula and other celestial light.

European Southern Observatory via Wikimedia Commons

Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, and Mary Virginia Orna. The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side. Oxford University Press, 2014. 576 pp. $41.95.

In considering science’s progress, 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote, “It sounds paradoxical to say that the attainment of scientific truth has been effected, to a great extent, by the help of scientific errors.” The three 21st-century authors of The Lost Elements might well agree with Huxley. By uncovering the history of miscalculations and faulty conclusions made in the search for new elements, the authors reveal the effort that goes into discovery. And mistakes, it seems, make for some of the most informative lessons about scientific exploration.

Lost Elements covers the hundreds of supposed elements discovered and rejected from 1789 to the modern period, with most making their appearance in the 19th and 20th centuries.

William Crookes’s “extinct elements” theory has to be one of the oddest and most fascinating concepts discussed in the book. The Victorian chemist was known for discovering a real element—thallium—but his ideas could be eccentric. In the 1880s Crookes argued that elements go through an evolutionary process, much like Darwin’s plants and animals; he thought elements originated in a primitive form of matter and had to achieve “harmony with their own development” to survive. Crookes even proposed “asteroid elements” that were unable to succeed on Earth but may have survived elsewhere in the universe.

Outer space, specifically its light, had for decades been a source of elemental discovery. In 1868 French astronomer Pierre Janssen found helium for the first time, seeing it as a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum. A few years earlier, astronomer William Huggins was the first to capture the spectrum of a nebula, which seemed to indicate the existence of an unknown element, later called nebulium. Fifty years later mathematical physicist John William Nicholson misinterpreted the spectra of nebulae as evidence of nebulium and other undiscovered elements. (In fact, Nicholson had found a form of oxygen that only exists in space.) As recounted in Lost Elements, the error had a disastrous effect on Nicholson, who once proven wrong grew resentful of the scientific community, turned to drink, and lost his academic job. He spent his last 25 years hospitalized.

Even such well-known chemists as Dmitri Mendeleev weren’t safe from false discoveries. Mendeleev, who in the 1860s arranged the elements, also predicted the existence of more than 10 elements; but some of his predictions, such as “coronium,” proved wrong. Mendeleev not only found elements that did not exist; he refused to believe in some elements that did exist, such as the noble gases, which threatened to upend his periodic table.

But even the failures show the persistence of scientists as a group. And even the best and brightest scientists found elements that proved not to exist. Those who jumped too quickly to a conclusion did so because they lived during an astonishing time of exploration: there were elements to find and fame to be had. Many of these false discoveries were the result of impure samples, such as with Andrew Gordon French’s canadium, or the misreading of data, as with Enrico Fermi’s ausonium and hesperium.

The Lost Elements is written chronologically, though readers can easily flip to any part and read self-contained chapters. The book is meticulously researched and fills a void in the history of chemistry, but it is dense on fact and far from a leisurely read. While many of the individual stories are compelling, so much ground is covered that some stories are told in only a paragraph or two, leaving me with more questions than answers. Still, the book is a valuable reference for historians of science and an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the elements and their discovery.