Science Poetry

Grammar of Elements

“Unerring, preparing is 
James Andrew Harris: 
T’ward isotopes heavy, his
Labwork maintains.  
Methods intrepid for 
Element 104
Find rutherfordium,
Now to be named.”  

The 12 April 2022 post was a Twitter biography poem noting some of the accomplishments of James Andrew Harris (1932-2000), whose research was integral to the discovery of multiple new elements.  Harris was a Black chemist who faced discrimination in his own career before his significant achievements at what is now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Throughout his career, he supported many African-American students in their pursuit of STEM coursework and research.    

“Unerring, preparing is /
James Andrew Harris: / 
T’ward isotopes heavy, his /
Labwork maintains…”  

James Andrew Harris was an outstanding nuclear scientist who led the Heavy Isotopes Production Group in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at UC Berkeley during the 1960s.  This lab group worked on synthesizing precursor species necessary for the bombardment experiments that would yield new elements.  Careful, meticulous preparation (i.e., “preparing” that was “unerring”) of the heavy-isotope precursors was necessary for the success of subsequent steps.  

“Methods intrepid for / 
Element 104 /
Find rutherfordium, /
Now to be named.”

This work ultimately led to the identification of two new elements, through the intrepid preparation methods of Harris’s team, followed by subsequent experiments and analyses by the research team led by Albert Ghiorso.  The elements in question had the atomic numbers 104 and 105 (meaning an element with 104 protons and an element with 105 protons, respectively).  Near the same period of time, a research team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Russia also identified these two elements in the lab.  

Each lab group used their own names with each of the two elements, and it took many years for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to resolve this naming controversy.  The IUPAC is the worldwide authority for chemists in terms of standardized nomenclature and communication.  As recounted in the poem, the IUPAC decided that Element 104 would be known as rutherfordium, after Ernest Rutherford; further, that Element 105 would be known as dubnium, after the town of Dubna, which is where the JINR is located. 

(This detailed discussion process yielded new, consistent reference points for chemists… and a title for this post!)