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What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By 1992, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and the entire world’s political, economic, and military alliances were in the throes of transformation. But you could forgive officials at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) if they didn’t notice much of a difference.

At the time, they were still embroiled in a very Cold War-era standoff. At issue was one of the biggest prizes in the field of chemistry– naming rights for new elements in the periodic table.

In the 1960s, American and Russian laboratories both laid claim to the discoveries of elements 104 and 105. And IUPAC had to play the role of arbiter. It took until 1997 to sort out the squabble, and along the way, several other new elements got dragged into the controversy, which some nuclear chemists dubbed the Transfermium Wars.

In the end, the Americans got their way on element 104, which was officially named Rutherfordium, in honor of British chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford. Element 105, Dubnium, is named for the Russian town of Dubna. Belying the decades-long conflict, IUPAC explained its decision in rather understated terms:

"The Commission hopes that the present collection of names will be accepted as a fair compromise between the various claims and suggestions."

Left: A Bunsen burner, named for German chemist Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

All researchers name the trappings of their discipline– whether elements, equations, or species. To some extent, the naming happens as a matter of convenience, as a form of shorthand to convey a complex concept to a fellow scientist. But hidden within those monikers are the stories of science: sweeping triumphs, competition, the ascent of young stars. Chemists have a particular affinity for names– they name not only their elements but also their lab equipment, their reactions, their catalysts, even portions of catalysts called ligands, which modify catalyst activity. Unlike the elements, these namings aren’t regulated by IUPAC. Instead, they’re an informal process dictated by the community that plays out in the scholarly literature, in books, and at conferences. As a result, they are a fascinating window on how discoveries in chemistry become chemistry fundamentals, not to mention a way to learn the tales of legends in the field.

Right: Among the simplest examples of 2010′s Nobel-winning chemistry

Consider 2010 chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard Heck, retired from the University of Delaware. Heck shared the prize with Ei-Ichi Negishi of Purdue University and Akira Suzuki of Japan’s Hokkaido University. Each of the three chemists has a reaction that bears his name. At a fundamental level, their reactions are similar– each forms a new bond between two carbon atoms, with help from a catalyst that includes the element palladium. But a look at how the reactions earned their names brings their stories to life.

The first chemists to use the term "Heck reaction" were more likely to call Heck "Dick" than "Richard". They had worked with or had met Heck, the son of a salesman and a housewife who worked at a chemical manufacturing firm called the Hercules Powder Company. Technically, Heck wasn’t the first chemist to run the reaction that now bears his name. That achievement belongs to Tsutomu Mizoroki, a chemist about Heck’s age who worked across the globe at Japan’s Tokyo Institute of Technology. So why didn’t Mizoroki get the honor? Chemists have a few reasons: Heck laid much of the foundation for Mizoroki’s work, and it was Heck who later made Mizoroki’s initial discovery practical.

Left: Richard F. Heck (Wikimedia Commons/BloodIce)

Both men’s stories took unfortunate turns. Mizoroki succumbed to pancreatic cancer at a young age, but his contribution lives on with the small percentage of chemists who refer to the Heck reaction as the Mizoroki-Heck reaction. And Heck, laid off from his industry job, moved to academe, only to retire in the late 1980s when his funding dried up, just before citations of his work and mentions of the term "Heck reaction" really started taking off.

The reaction named for Heck’s fellow Laureate Suzuki, too, has a story, and it’s evident from how the reaction’s name has changed with time. The Suzuki coupling has also come to be called the Suzuki-Miyaura coupling, after a former Suzuki research group member, Norio Miyaura, who since went on to have an illustrious career of his own at Hokkaido University. Miyaura had a hand in developing the reaction, and as he became more established the community began to give him a share of the credit.

Of course, not every reaction or equation’s story is as clear-cut as those examples. Sometimes, researchers agree to share credit. A particularly genteel example of this involves a rule chemists call the Curtin-Hammett principle. Physical chemist David Curtin tried to give credit to Louis Hammett for coming up with the rule, but Hammett then turned around and gave credit to Curtin (Chem. Rev., DOI: 10.1021/cr00054a001)! So both of their names ended up immortalized in the textbooks.

Other times, as with elements 104 and 105, namings are fraught with controversy. Because a namesake reaction or catalyst is a road to recognition in the field, the stakes are high. And other than promote new work to colleagues, there’s not much a chemist can do about his or her own legacy in that sense. It’s considered bad form to try to name a reaction after oneself– akin to talking about Fight Club.

But mention the possibility of creating some IUPAC-like body to regulate how reactions are named, and most chemists won’t agree with that idea. They love named reactions as they are, quirky naming process and all. It shows in the number of books chemists have written about the reactions, and more recently, the number of iPhone apps they’ve developed to keep track of them. Earlier this year, Smith College’s Kevin Shea and Julie Olson even used named reactions as a lens to examine a social issue– women’s contributions to organic chemistry (J. Chem. Ed., DOI: 10.1021/ar100114m).

That shared enthusiasm is a big reason why I believe that exploring how chemists name things is a great way to talk about the field to non-chemists. Another reason is what I like to call the "relate-ability factor". Names make the periodic table more than the periodic table, and a reaction more than a reaction. Names transform them into the legacies of people who had ideas and passions and rivals. Names make the history of chemistry human.

Note: Many thanks to Matt Hartings, Jeff Seeman, and Rudy Baum for helpful discussions.

About the Author: Carmen Drahl is an associate editor at Chemical & Engineering News magazine in Washington, DC. She blogs at The Haystack, which is part of the CENtral Science blog network. Her writing has been recognized by the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and Ed Yong’s "Not Exactly Rocket Science" at DISCOVER blogs. Carmen obtained her Ph.D. in chemistry in 2007 at Princeton University. She is named after her maternal grandmother, Carmen Mallol Bayer de García.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. David Kroll 1:07 pm 08/3/2011

    Carmen, what a great post! You’ve really been developing this area quite nicely from your pre-Nobel interview with Heck and all the attention after the Nobel.

    In fact, you’re a really great teacher – I love your simple, hand-drawn reactions showing the difference between the three coupling reactions. I think I have to get you down here to give a class to my students!

    Funny thing is that biologists have become far less prone to naming things, reagents, etc. after ourselves. The Lowry protein assay and Cleveland partial proteolytic gel electrophoresis are probably the ones I remember the most. Instead, we name proteins with these weird three- and four-letter acronyms that only occasionally describe their actual functions.

    Great post – thanks!

    Link to this
  2. 2. carmendrahl 2:50 pm 08/3/2011

    Thanks David! I suppose in some way we are all our mentors’ students– the chemist I worked for in grad school, Erik Sorensen, is meticulous about his hand-drawn structures, and is something of a scholar of the history of total synthesis.

    Funny you should compare to biologists- A fascinating discussion is happening on Google+, with some folks wondering whether biologists have a little more whimsy in naming– check out the discussion <a href="https://plus.google.com/102607585959501559706/posts/GjHyZ8poZdo#102607585959501559706/posts/GjHyZ8poZdo">here</a>.

    Link to this

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