Thursday, January 14, 2016

What's in a name?

Shawn Burdette’s blog post on element-naming has some nice things in it, but I wonder if he appreciates that the entire discussion around the names of the four new elements is itself largely a bit of fun? Sure, I can imagine that there are some people signing the petitions for lemmium and octarine thinking that the Japanese or Russian teams are going to say “Hey, several of those Brits want us to name this element after a heavy-rock musician we’ve never heard of/some magical colour in a series of books by a fantasy writer we’ve never heard of – well, that seems like a good idea to us.” Who knows, perhaps they are hoping one of the scientists will pipe up with “Oh yeah, I remember Silver Machine from my student days in Kyoto/St Petersburg. Let’s do it, freaks!” But really, do most of the signatories think this is anything but a fun way to celebrate a couple of recently deceased people whose work they liked?

The point is that most people aren’t suggesting names because they have the slightest hope, or even wish, that they’ll be taken seriously, or that the researchers need a bit of help. Rather, this is an unusually rich opportunity to both make a few funny/wistful/ridiculous suggestions and to have a considered discussion about how these names come about. If we aren’t allowed to do that unless we are “in the element discovery business”, it’s a sadder world. Certainly that’s why I said in my Nature piece that levium is a name I’d love to see, not one that I think ought to be adopted. It was a personal view (the clue was in the article category), not an absurd attempt to “impose my ideas for element names on the discoverers”. And if it is sanctimonious to wish for element names to be inclusive rather than proprietorial, so be it.

Which brings us to nationalism. Let me confess right away that I am not entirely consistent on this, because I can’t help feeling a soft spot for the Curies’ polonium. Poland had a pretty crap time of it in the 19th and early 20th century, and besides, Marie seemed to have regarded this as a kind of homage to a distant homeland rather than a boast. No, my case is not airtight. But as Shawn says, germanium and francium did seem more aggressively flag-waving (I’ve never got to the bottom of the accusations of egotism behind Lecoq’s gallium.)

And it surely doesn’t stop there: americium smells of the Cold War, although in fairness this doesn’t appear to refer solely to the United States. If berkelium, californium, dubnium, hassium and livermorium aren’t necessarily expressions of patriotism, they do seem to veer towards bragging. Shawn asks: well, why not? It is damned hard to do this work, why shouldn’t the teams get the credit, even if it seems a little vain? I’m not convinced. They definitely deserve credit, of course, but there are other avenues for that. My biggest concern, though, is that this triumphalism is a reflection of the competitiveness of the whole business, which seems unfortunate and tiresome. When there is a dispute over priority and then the “winner” goes and names the element after themselves (in effect), it is like sticking your tongue out at the “losers”: it’s us, not you. The disputatious nature of element-making during the Cold War years is notorious, and even if things are somewhat more collaborative now, there are still arguments.

It’s precisely because the work is so hard that priority can be so contentious: it is a matter of fine judgement whether a claim is convincing or not. The Russian team insists that their claim for having seen element 113 in 2003 should count as the first, and that the Japanese group came second the next year. Their complaint that the Japanese result isn’t going to be easily reproduced by anyone, and that in any case the leader of that team Kosuke Morita learnt his chops at Dubna in the first place, seems particularly ungracious. All the same, can we be so sure that the Russians don’t have a case? I trust the IUPAC experts, but it seems unlikely that there are completely cut-and-dry arguments. Imagine if the situation was reversed: if the Japanese had toiled hard to get a suggestive decay signature, their first shot at an element discovered in the Far East, only to be dismissed by IUPAC in favour of those Russians again, who go and slap “moscovium” on it. Would we feel that was a good name that enhanced the justice of the situation?

This, of course, is science as normal – different people arrive at much the same result at much the same time, and priority is a murky issue. But this is precisely why a winner-takes-all approach to naming adds to the distorted view of discovery that such emphasis on coming first produces. I fully understand that for some individual scientists, priority can matter hugely to career prospects, even though it damned well shouldn’t. But to big, substantially funded projects like this? I don’t think so. Even if element-naming wasn’t solipsistic, there would surely still be a strong desire to claim priority. But do we have to make it worse?

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