The Battle Behind the Periodic Table’s Latest Additions

By Edwin Cartlidge

The mood at Bäckaskog Castle in southern Sweden should have been upbeat when chemists and physicists gathered there for a symposium in May 2016. The meeting, sponsored by the Nobel Foundation, offered researchers a chance to take stock of global efforts to probe the limits of nuclear science, and to celebrate four new elements that they had added to the periodic table a few months earlier. The names of the elements were due to be announced within days, a huge honour for the researchers and countries responsible for the discoveries.

Although many at the meeting were thrilled with how their field was developing — and the headlines it was generating — a significant number were worried. They feared that there were flaws in the process of assessing claims about new elements, and were concerned that reviews of the recent discoveries had fallen short. Some felt there was not enough evidence to justify enshrining the most controversial elements, numbers 115 and 117. The scientific integrity of the periodic table was at stake.

Towards the end of the meeting, one scientist asked for a show of hands on whether or not they should announce the elements’ names as planned. The question exposed the depth of concern among the crowd. Most researchers voted to delay the announcement, says Walter Loveland, a nuclear chemist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. And that triggered a remarkable reaction from some of the Russian scientists who had led efforts that resulted in three of the elements. “They just stomped their feet and walked out,” says Loveland. “I’ve never seen that in a scientific meeting.”

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