Across the pond - Continental Europe

various mugs of different scientists

The October 2016 issue had us traveling across the pond to learn about famous scientists from the UK. Now we travel further east to discuss other Europeans before Brexit makes it harder to leave England. Discussed below are the Dane Hans Christian Ørsted, the Swiss Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac, the naturalized-French/Polka Marie Skłodowska Curie and the German Albert Einstein. Curie and Einstein are Nobel laureates. Ørsted and de Marignac reached similar pillars of distinction, but Ørsted passed away (age 73) 50 years before the establishment of the award, and de Marignac passed (age 76) 7 years before the first awarded prize. 

The third most abundant metal on Earth is aluminum (spelling used in Canada and US). In 1807 Sir Humphry Davy (see October 2016, pages 14-15) argued the existence of the element aluminum as part of the salt alum. Eighteen years later, Hans Christian Ørsted (1777–1851) was able to isolate element #13. (IUPAC named the element aluminium making this spelling the international standard, but in the US and Canada, it is called aluminum, as Davy proposed.) The Ørsted mug was designed by the first author to support the 2013 National Chemistry Week theme Energy: Now and Forever!, which focused on sustainable resources. Aluminum cans are the world's most recycled beverage container.

Ørsted, son of a pharmacist, was born in Rudkøbing, an island town of Langeland, Denmark. Homeschooled until 16, he then

attended the University of Copenhagen, earning his doctorate at age 22. In 1820 he made his most famous discovery, the relationship between magnetism and electricity, inspired during a lecture in which he noticed a compass needle redirect when an electric current was switched on and off. Not that this phenomenon was anything new, but his observation of the circular magnetic field was the lynchpin needed for worldwide acceptance of electromagnetism. Five years later, Ørsted isolated aluminum via a reduction of aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam — an alloy of potassium and mercury — by heating the resulting aluminum amalgam under reduced pressure, boiling away mercury and leaving an impure sample of aluminum metal.

Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac (1817-1894) was a Swiss chemist born in Geneva and educated in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris. His work with atomic weights suggested the possibility of isotopes and the packing fraction of nuclei. Justus von Liebig — considered by many as the founder of organic chemistry — was his student for a year in Giessen.

De Marignac also spent time at the Sèvres porcelain factory, the same location as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, before his appointment to the chair of chemistry at Geneva (1841).

Commanding great respect from his students and, with the aged Berzelius’s (April 2016, pages 6-7) enthusiastic approval, he became renowned for his analytical accuracy. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Prout's hypothesis that all elements have an atomic weight that is an integral multiple of the hydrogen atom. He defended it from the criticism that refined measurements showed it to be false by claiming it to be sufficiently accurate for the practical calculations of chemistry. He accurately determined the atomic weights of nearly 30 elements and helped to unravel the chemistry of niobium and tantalum, the silicates, the tungstates and the rare earths. His study of the rare earth elements led to the discovery of ytterbium and co-discovery of gadolinium.

Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934), the first scientist and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes (1903 Physics; 1911 Chemistry), was born in Warsaw, Poland in the same year that it became part of the Russian Empire. As a young adult she was forbidden to attend the male-only University of Warsaw, so she continued her education in Warsaw's "floating university", a secret underground network of classes, until, in 1891, she finally made her way to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne. After completing degrees in physics and mathematics, she would eventually be the first woman appointed to a professorship at the Sorbonne.

Marie and her husband Pierre, while working with the mineral pitchblende — known today as uraninite — discovered a new radioactive element after removal of the uranium. They named the element polonium, after Marie's native country. Following the extraction of polonium, the remaining radioactive mixture was found to be compounds of barium — brilliant green flame color — and an unknown radioactive compound that they named radium. The French word radium has Latin roots from radius, which roughly translates to “power of emitting energy in the form of rays.” This work won Marie the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; unfortunately, her husband had passed away in 1907.

Pitch blende ore

Fig. 1: Pitch Blende Ore

The last mug for discussion centers on the element einsteinium, Es. This mug was distributed to the members of ACT2 and shared with the members of the Texas Section of AAPT in 2005 to honor Einstein's "miraculous year" centennial. Einsteinium, named for Albert Einstein (1879-1955), was discovered in debris of hydrogen bomb explosions. Einsteinium’s most common

isotope Es-253 is produced at a rate of a few milligrams per year artificially from the decay of californium-253. This reactor synthesis is followed by a complex process of separating Es-253 from other actinides and products of decay. The half-life of Es-253 is 20.5 days compared to Es-254 which has a half-life of 276 days.

Professor Albert Einstein is primarily regarded as a physicist. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his understanding of light quanta in the photoelectric effect, published in 1905. This same year he published his doctoral thesis — the second of five celebrated papers — at the University of Zürich with his 24-page dissertation "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions", and he also provided a theoretical explanation for Brownian motion and introduced the theory of special relativity. As well in 1905, his Annus Mirabilis, he provided his famous E = mc2 equation that led to the dawn of the atomic-energy age.

As Einstein’s fame spread, he alienated himself from the physics community by refusing to accept the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, which might partly explain why he was never awarded the Nobel for relativity. Oddly, a 1921 Nobel Prize was not awarded until 1922, and he did not attend the ceremony. As a Jew he feared for his safety, given the antisemitism rampant in Germany at the time, so he just continued with a lecture tour in Japan. Throughout his life Einstein was devoted to world peace and was aware of its frailty, saying “politics are for the moment; an equation is for eternity.”

The next article in this series concludes our descriptions of the ACT2 Signature Mugs. As we started with "Firsts" (April 2016, pages 6-7), we will conclude by highlighting additional contributions of Glenn Seaborg and selected members of his research group.