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Monthly, July 2019
Periodic table by Dmitri Mendeleev, 1871. Photo: NikNaks. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Pioneers of the periodic table

Ever since it was proposed by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, the periodic table has been at the core of chemistry. Mendeleev’s table not only classified the known elements, but enabled him to predict those that were missing, along with their physical and chemical properties. While Mendeleev was never awarded the Nobel Prize (he was nominated in 1905, 1906 and 1907) his work paved the way for many other laureates who went onto be recognised for their elemental discoveries. Let’s take a look at some of the Nobel Laureates who have contributed to this scientific staple.

- Plutonium
Glenn T. Seaborg standing in front of the periodic table, 19 May 1950. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Courtesy of Berkeley Lab.
“On the stormy night of Feb. 23, 1941, Art Wahl performed the oxidation that gave us proof that what we had made was chemically different from all other known elements.”

In 1985, in the New York Times, Glenn Seaborg published ‘Man’s First Glimpse of Plutonium’, the story of how he and colleagues synthesised a brand new element. It was a discovery that earned Seaborg and Edwin McMillan the 1950 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Read Glenn Seaborg’s lecture on discovering the transuranium elements

Ar, Ne, Kr and Xe
- Argon, Neon, Krypton and Xenon
William Ramsey and Lord Rayleigh.
Seaborg and McMillan were far from the first Nobel Laureates to be recognised for their work in discovering elements – pure substances composed of just one type of atom.

The first Nobel Laureates to be awarded the prize for their contributions to the periodic table were William Ramsey and Lord Rayleigh. Lord Rayleigh was interested in developing methods for studying the physical properties of gases in the atmosphere. However, when he compared nitrogen extracted from air with nitrogen extracted from chemical compounds, Lord Rayleigh found that the nitrogen from air was heavier. He concluded that the air must contain another, previously unknown substance.

In 1894 he, along with Ramsay, succeeded in extracting the previously unknown element, argon, in pure form. They named it after the Greek word for lazy as they found it was extremely unreactive.

The pair’s discovery made them realise that the recently formed periodic table was missing a whole class of elements – the inert noble gases. After isolating another noble gas – helium – Ramsay predicted others based on the periodic table and went on to establish the existence of neon, krypton and xenon.

Read the award ceremony speech for Lord Rayleigh’s prize
Read the award ceremony speech for Sir William Ramsay’s prize

- Polonium
Pierre and Marie Curie. © Association Curie Joliot-Curie
Another important elemental discovery was made by perhaps one of the most famous contributors to the periodic table: Marie Curie, along with her husband Pierre.

The Curies were interested in investigating a new phenomenon – radioactivity. Their studies led them to the ore pitchblend which they found was four to five times more active than the uranium they had been investigating. After much experimenting they started to realise that maybe there were unknown, new elements in pitchblend. In the summer of 1998 their hard work was rewarded when they discovered a brand new element, polonium.

Read more about the discoveries of the Curies

"There's antimony, arsenic, aluminium ..."

Peter Agre.
If you take a look at the periodic table you can see another way laureates have left their mark. Many elements bear the name of Nobel Laureates themselves. Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr all have elements named after them. When naming one of his discoveries Glenn Seaborg looked to the scientists that had come before him. As a result the new element Curium was named after the Curies. In turn Seaborg himself has an element named after him although it was a controversial choice as he was still alive at the time the name was proposed. And last but not least – there is Nobelium – named after Alfred Nobel.

Watch Chemistry Laureate Peter Agre sing 'The elements'

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Nobel names

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