July 22, 1957 – The Race to Create Element #102

On July 22, 1957, Time reported on a unique relay race run by a team of chemist-athletes from the United States, Britain, and Sweden.  American chemists Paul R. Fields and Arnold Friedman of the Argonne National Laboratory, along with John Milsted of Britain’s Harwell lab joined several Swedish chemists from the Nobel Institute for Physics to conduct experiments on the Stockholm cyclotron with the goal of creating elusive element #102.

Elements 1-94 (hydrogen through plutonium) are all naturally occurring elements – substances that exist in the world outside the laboratory.  As of July 22, 1957, elements 95 through 101 (americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, and mendelevium) had all been produced in cyclotrons, huge machines which accelerate atomic particles in spiral paths by use of a constant magnetic field.  Fields, Friedman and Milsted proceeded to attempt the creation of (and claim the naming rights for) #102 by bombarding curium with carbon ions.  They created a “target” for the cyclotron by sandwiching a thin film of curium between sheets of aluminum foil and attaching a bit of plastic film to “catch” any heavy, unstable 102 atoms.

Heavy elements are all highly unstable – they disappear quickly.  The trick would be to detect and measure the presence of any 102 before it could disintegrate.  So the chemists donned their track shoes and created a relay team.  Step one, after the cyclotron was shut down, was to dash into the chamber and snatch the target from the machine.  Relay member number two took the target apart and passed it to number three, who extracted the catcher foil hopefully containing measurable quantities of 102.  Fleet-footed Swede Lennart Holm, relay member number four, dashed with the foil 100 yards to an elevator which led to an upstairs lab with an alpha-particle-measuring apparatus.  With practice, the team brought their cyclotron-to-apparatus time down to 1 1/2 minutes.

The chemist team felt victory within their grasp when the alpha-particle apparatus results showed the presence of particles with almost exactly the energy signature predicted by physical theory for potential element 102.  Further lab testing with an acid-based process left the team sure they had succeeded in their quest.  Their yield – 50 atoms, or one billion-trillionth of an ounce.  They choose the name nobelium for this new element, honoring the site and sponsor of their discovery.

What Time could not report on July 22, 1957, however, was that the dedicated team were mistaken.  The isotope of 102, with a ten-minute half-life at 8.5 MeV (chemist language for the specifics of their creation) which they claimed to have detected, was discounted in April of 1958 by both American and Russian researchers.  The 1958 test results completely ruled out any possibility of such an isotope of 102.  Four men – Albert Ghiorso, Torbjorn Sikkeland, John R. Walton, and Glenn T. Seaborg – were credited with the creation of 102 at Lawrence Laboratory in Berkeley, California during April of that year.  They agreed to retain the previous naming and #102 took its place on the periodic table with the symbol “No”.

Then, the plot thickens again.  In 1966, scientists at the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions in Dubna, Russia conducted a series of complicated experiments.  Their results ultimately led to awarding them the ultimate credit for fully and correctly identifying 102-nobelium.

The perplexing question: what did the quick minds and feet of Fields, Freidman, Milsted, and Holm create in the Swedish cyclotron?  The team finally conceded their discovery was the “activity of background effects”.  The world of science is an exercise not only aerobic, but also painstaking, patient, and persistently plodding in nature.

Image Credit: Theodore Gray/Photographic Periodic Table Poster