Signature mugs: Firsts

Mugs with pictures of chemists, signatures and chemical symbols.Mug with a signature and chemical symbol, Am-95The Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas (ACT2, as it is commonly known) began the signature mug series in 1997 at the encouragement of Professor J. J. Lagowski (Dr. L), former editor of the Journal of Chemical Education and one of the founding Regional Directors of ACT2. From 1997 to 2015, 25 signature mugs have been given to ACT2 members as a token of appreciation from the ACT2 Board of Directors and elected officers. We call them signature mugs because each displays a signature of a scientist, sometimes in regards to one or more elements they discovered and others to document a specific historical event. In the next few issues of Chem 13 News we are going to share our collection along with some interesting facts about the scientist whose signature is on the mug. All 25 mugs can be found at ACT2 website.

As stated above, Dr. L, as he was affectionately known to many, suggested we have an attendee give-away at the first ACT2-Welch conference held at the University of Dallas. We decided on a coffee mug with a signature of a graduate student under Glenn Seaborg — who synthesized americium. This graduate student, L.O. (Tom) Morgan, just happened to work next door to Dr. L in Welch Hall at The University of Texas at Austin. At that time the Morgan mug was intended to be the first, last and only mug. (More details about Professor Morgan in a future paper in this series.)

This mug was well received, but there were no plans to extend the series until we began planning for our next ACT2-Welch Biennial Conference. Someone (maybe then-President Ken Lyle's friend, Roxie Allen) asked — what is the next mug going to be? And so it became an expectation that at every meeting we would give a coffee mug displaying someone's signature. We've mailed mugs to Russia, Egypt and Florida. The mugs are the cheapest, plain white mugs — ordered at a trophy shop by the gross. The value added is the unique signature for each year’s mug. Prior to the world-wide-web becoming a place to go for signatures, we felt very fortunate to find a signature of any recognized scientists and therefore were delighted to obtain original signatures from special resident Texans like Morgan, Smalley, Curl, Choppin, Oganessian and Lagowski. As time progressed, historical autographs have become more readily available. We have been fortunate to obtain original signatures from about half of the scientist honored on our mugs. For the most part, we tried to honor scientists who discovered one or more elements on the periodic table.

In this paper, we have chosen to highlight the ACT2 mugs that honor a scientist who did something first. Even though the Lagowski mug was the next to the last distributed, we honored him a few months after he passed in 2014 for being a founder of ACT2, a Regional Director of ACT2 and the first to make an anion of gold, Au-, auride, in a non-aqueous, metal-ammonia solution. (For those of you teaching an advanced course in chemistry, you might like to challenge your students to describe auride and contemplate its discovery.) Dr. L's signature was lifted from the signature line of the last author's dissertation.

The next three scientists grouped for this paper on firsts are Avogadro, Berzelius and Mendeleev. Avogadro and Berzelius' signatures came from their respective wikis, but the Mendeleev signature was obtained from a postcard obtained in St. Petersburg, Russia by Jim Marshall, colleague of the last author who also acquired a bottle of Mendeleev vodka!

Avogadro is best known for his 1811 hypothesis that "equal volumes of different gases contain an equal number of molecules, provided they are at the same temperature and pressure." At the time this idea was rejected by other scientists and gained acceptance only after Avogadro’s death. It is now known as Avogadro’s law. Avogadro was the first scientist to realize that elements could exist in the form of molecules rather than as individual atoms, but the number that bears his name was actually calculated by Loschmidt. In July 2015, a new value for Avogadro's number was determined with an uncertainty of less than 20 atoms per billion — down from the 2011 value with a 30-atom uncertainty. There are new definitions to some SI units proposed that will precisely fix the value of the constant to exactly 6.02214X × 1023 unit mol−1 (the "X" at the end of a number means one or more final digits yet to be agreed upon). The number attributed to honor Avogadro led to the recognition of what is known as Mole Day, celebrated each year on October 23, the 10th month of the year on the 23rd day. Where this special date falls determines the week devoted to the American Chemical Society National Chemistry Week. Many celebrate Mole Day at 6:02 am.

Berzelius introduced the modern chemical symbols for the elements that are used today earning him the distinction as one of the founders of modern chemistry. He is also given credit for the discovery of cerium (1803) and thorium (1828). Known as the Father of Swedish Chemistry, he introduced new symbols for elements, developed a new chemical notation system — he used superscripts, not subscripts as we do today — and he and his students identified — in addition to cerium and thorium — silicon, selenium, lithium and vanadium. He did not limit his study to just identification of elements but also is considered to be the first to use and define the terms catalysis, polymer, isomer and allotrope.

Mendeleev is known as the creator of the periodic table. He knew there was a flaw in his initial arrangement, which was based on the atomic masses of the 63 known elements, but his ordering attracted little interest until his prediction of missing elements (gallium, scandium and germanium) and their properties were verified by the discoveries of these elements. He wrote the first book on the spectroscope, helped found the first oil refinery in Russia and introduced the metric system to Russia. Interestingly he studied alcohol concentrations over 70% but never wrote anything on the standardization of vodka. To honor this very ingenuous scientist, mendelevium, a synthetic chemical element with symbol Md and atomic number 101, was chosen by IUPAC.

The next ACT2 mug article in our series highlights the perplexing story of the discovery of oxygen.