With the death in February of Professor Glenn Seaborg, we have lost not only one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, but the only person in the history of science who has had a chemical element, seaborgium, named after him in his lifetime.
Glenn Seaborg was involved with synthesising or identifying nine of the transuranic elements, starting with plutonium in 1940 and ending with nobelium in 1957. Almost none of the elements with numbers above number 92 (uranium) exist in nature, so these new ones were created by smashing atoms and subatomic particles into each other in nuclear reactors, cyclotrons and the like. Later, teams in America, Germany and the Soviet Union went on to create others, of which the most recent is element 114, reported earlier this year.
The naming of new chemical elements is a small part of the work of an organisation most of us have never heard of, nor are likely to encounter: the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (commonly abbreviated IUPAC). For more than a decade IUPAC was the centre of a controversy over the names of the transuranic elements from 101 up to 109, so much so that they had to invent temporary names for them, such as unnilhexium for 106. This revolved around arguments over who created them first (laboratories at Berkeley, Dubna in the former Soviet Union, and Darmstadt in Germany were all involved), tinged with cold war antagonisms and institutional rivalries.
The American Chemical Society proposed one list of names and the Russians another. IUPAC had a rule that no chemical element was to be named after a living individual, but the American list contained the name seaborgium for element 106, which had been first made in 1974. This and other problems delayed ratification of the list until August 1997, when an IUPAC meeting agreed on a compromise, but largely American, list that included seaborgium. All those dictionary makers who by then had created entries for the new element under that name breathed easier.
By the nature of nature, new elements to name are scarce (though those from number 110 onwards are still up for grabs), so the honour bestowed on Glenn Seaborg may forever remain unique.