Finlandisation may be behind us (in more ways than one) but Russia now lies ahead of us – as does one more visit to the chemistry lab.
Russia is namechecked in a number of English words and phrases, from Russian law (a seventeenth-century expression for especially severe justice) to the vodka-heavy black Russian cocktail (which was actually invented in Belgiumf). The name Russia itself was Victorian slang for a gentleman’s pocketmy blog (so called as they were often made of Russian leather), while the game Chinese whispers or telephone – in which a whispered message is secretly relayed from player to player – started life back in the mid nineteenth century as Russian scandal:
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There is a game called Russian Scandal, which is played in this fashion: A tells B a brief narrative, which B is to repeat to C, and C to D, and so on By the time the narrative has been transmitted from mouth to mouth six or seven times, it has commonly undergone a complete transformation. The ordinary result of the experiment will afford an apt illustration of the value of oral testimony.
For obvious reasons, the expression Russian scandal also eventually came to be used figuratively of gossip or unreliable testimony.
What brings us to Russia now, however, is an actual Russian scandal – one that at the height of the Cold War led to yet another (although somewhat less threatening) disagreement between the East and West.
Twelve hundred miles ago we were in an unassuming Swedish mining town now immortalised in the periodic table. Arriving in Dubna – another equally unassuming town, some seventy-five miles north of Moscow – we’ve found another. Dubna gave its name to dubnium, a highly radioactive element with the atomic number 105.
Dubnium is a synthetic element, meaning it exists in no naturally occurring form, and so has to be artificially synthesised in laboratories. As a consequence, only a few atoms of it have ever been produced since its discovery in the late 1960s, and even the most stable of these have belonged to isotopes with a half-life of barely a single day. To say that science doesn’t know an awful lot about dubnium is something of an understatement.
But while the physicists might have to sit this discussion out, the etymologists have plenty to talk about.
Dubnium is so named because its very first traces were supposedly produced by a team of scientists at the Soviet Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna in 1967. The same team finally confirmed their findings and successfully synthesised a sample of the element three years later. Around the same time, a team of scientists working at Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California also claimed to have synthesised element 105, and likewise announced their discovery in early 1970. Precisely which team had got there first was unclear. That led to a problem.
By convention, the discoverers of new chemical elements earn the right to name their discovery themselves. But in the case of element 105, there were two separate teams staking independent claims – and each had its own idea of what it should be called. The Soviet team at Dubna wanted to call its discovery nielsbohrium, in honour of the acclaimed Danish physicist Niels Bohr. The Berkeley team championed the name hanhium, honouring the ‘Father of Nuclear Chemistry’, German scientist Otto Hahn. At the height of the Cold War, another East-West skirmish appeared to be on the cards. And just like the Cold War, this one was going to get worse before it got better.
In 1969, the Berkeley team announced to the scientific community that it had also successfully synthesised element 104, which they declared should now be named rutherfordium, in honour of the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford. The problem was, however, that the Dubna team had again apparently got there first: the Soviets claimed that they had produced a sample of element 104 five years earlier, in 1964. Their means were unverified, but that didn’t stop them coming up with their own suggestion for its name, kurchatovium, in honour of the director of the Soviet atomic-bomb project, Igor Kurchatov.
There were now two elements on the periodic table – numbers 104 and 105 – whose discoveries were both being independently claimed by Soviet and American research teams. Moreover, the Americans did not accept the Soviets’ name or precedence, and vice versa.
Then, just to complicate things further, along came element 106.
In 1974, once again the team at Dubna announced that it had successfully synthesised another highly radioactive element, atomic number 106. Once again, just a few months later, the Berkeley team followed suit, and made precisely the same announcement.
This time, the US team made the first move and suggested the name seaborgium for their discovery, in honour of the American nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg. Helpfully, the Soviet team sat this one out, and made no suggestion of its own. (Perhaps it knew its claim was flawed, as in 1992 the method used by the Soviet team was finally found to be unsatisfactory.)
The naming disputes over these high-end chemical elements came to be known collectively as the ‘Transfermium Wars’, as they concerned all those elements listed above and beyond fermium, element number 100, on the periodic table. These ‘wars’ rumbled on for another two decades, despite the brokering of a series of compromises in the mid 1970s that saw all these contentious names being temporarily replaced with purely systematic ones: for a time, elements 104, 105 and 106 ultimately became known as unnilquadium, unnilpentium and unnilhexium, using neutral names based merely on the Latin for 1 (un), 0 (nil), 4 (quad), 5 (pent) and 6 (hex).
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the dispute was finally ended, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry approved the Berkeley team’s suggested names for elements 104, rutherfordium, and 106, seaborgium. As for element 105, the IUPAC decided that it was to be named dubnium, in honour not of the original Soviet team’s suggestion, but rather the team’s work on the discovery. The so-called Transfermium Wars, ultimately, outlasted the Cold War they had so inadvertently mirrored.
Let him have Russian law for all his sins,’ reads a line in Thomas Dekker’s 1623 play The Wonder of a Kingdom. ‘100 blowes on his bare shins.’
The Moscow mule cocktail, likewise, is said to have been invented not in Moscow but in New York City by bartender Wes Price. According to an account published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, Price mixed Smirnoff vodka with ginger beer for no reason other than that he ‘wanted to clean out the basement’, and rid his bar of a backlog of its worst-selling drinks.
In fact, the US team had been trying to name an element seaborgium since the early 1950s: Seaborg was a pioneer in the field of synthesising elements, and when the possibility of manufacturing elements with atomic numbers above 99 was first announced, the suggestion was made that the first of these to be produced should be named in his honour. In fact, element 99 came to be named einsteinium.
In approving the name seaborgium, the IUPAC was compelled to break its own moratorium on naming chemical elements after living scientists: when the name was finally approved in 1997, Glenn T. Seaborg was still alive. Seaborg later commented that this was ‘the greatest honor ever bestowed upon me – even better, I think, than winning the Nobel Prize’. He died two years later, in 1999.