You know about the Higgs boson, right? Its existence was recently confirmed. It had been deduced years ago that it had to exist if the standard model of subatomic particles was correct. Other particles had been identified, and a nice table made that had a spot where a certain kind of particle should be in order for it all to be tidy. But no one had observed that particle. So once the Large Hadron Collider was built, which would finally have enough power to make these particles appear, experiments were undertaken to see if they could find it. And they did.

That’s certainly not the first time that the existence of something has been deduced or even required in order to make a model work. And those of us who like to do puzzles know the feeling: you have a general solution that seems consistent, but there’s something missing, a blank that needs to be filled in or everything just doesn’t work. It’s a task that may involve deductions and mass observation, or it may involve artifice and technique.

Say, for instance, you have worked out that the world is round, not flat. According to your calculations, if you go a certain route, you will end up in a place that had been thought to be far in the other direction. Or say you’ve observed a certain insect, but you’ve only observed the female of it. You know that somewhere there has to be a male. Or say there’s a missing link in the fossil record between apes and hominids. Or say you’re an astronomer and you find that there is a perturbation in the motion of a star that can only be explained by the existence of a planet. Or you find a bunch of bones at an archeological dig that can’t be put together into anything anyone already knows about.

Or say you have a chart of elements. Chemical elements. The basic stuff of which all stuff is made. And you’ve identified quite a lot of bits in the wild, but you see that there are slots that need to be filled in – places on the chart where there isn’t anything known to exist yet but where something must exist unless the structure of the chart is wrong.

Funny to think of it now, but the periodic table of elements was once, even right in the middle of it – not just at the high end – a work in progress. And in spot 43, there was a blank to be filled in. An unknown element. Who would discover it?

And what would they name it?

Once Dimitri Mendeleev had made his periodic table and, in 1871, posited an element in the 43rd spot, just below manganese, the race was on to find it and, in the great tradition of scientists and explorers everywhere, name it. They didn’t have a name set in advance like the Higgs boson – oh, yes, Mendeleev did have a proposed name, but it was just a space-filler, ekamanganese, meant to indicate that the element was one row directly below manganese. So whoever found the element would get to name it what they wanted.

This is sort of like being a paleobiologist. If you find a bunch of bones that don’t look like what you’ve seen before, you assume there must be a new creature. Once you manage to put them together to make a real creature, you have to give it a name. If you’re someone like Krister Smith, you name it after friends: Suzanniwana patriciana.

The discovery and naming of element 43 happened quite a few times, as it turned out. People had what they thought was the long-awaited 43rd element but was actually some impure specimen of another element that fooled their tests. That element is a true graveyard for names given to the wrong thing, like flags planted on ice floes that turned out not to be at the north pole after all. Roll them on your tongue and savour them, these forlorn flags of lost pride: polinium, ilemium, pelopium, davyum (after Sir Humphry Davy, who abominated gravy and lived in the odium of having discovered sodium), lucium, nipponium (that one because the scientist in question was Japanese – Nippon is Japanese for “Japan”), and masurium (named after the region of Prussia where the lead investigator’s family was from). Those who actually identified the element were given the suggestion by their university, the University of Palermo, to name it panormium, since Panormus was the Latin name for Palermo. But instead the scientists named it technetium.

Why technetium? Well, it was the first element to be produced artificially – it wasn’t discovered in some natural source (it very rarely appears in natural sources, but not never); it was isolated from materials that had been used in a cyclotron. So the discoverers gave it a name not based on some family connection or in honour of some great scientist, but just taken from the Greek word τεχνητός technetos “artificial”, derived from a word referring to making; the tech root you see in so many places comes from this too. The word technetium, by the way, is pronounced with the t as “sh”. So there’s no “neat” in this word to go with the tech (“teck”); rather, you get the “niche” that it fills, and a sound to recall the “technicians” who helped fill it.

Imagine a pond where different animals eat different kinds of plants. No animal they have seen has eaten the quux plant, but the quux plant keeps getting eaten. So it is deduced that a quux-eater must exist. Various biologists think they have found this beastie, and name it accordingly: one discovers what he names the Myriamber after his mother and his sister, but it turns out to be a fat duck; another declares discovery and calls it the texasholdemodon, but it is finally identified as a maimed alligator; another finds something that ends up being the neighbour’s cat in a Hallowe’en costume, which he had named a burgundee.

But of course no one can just synthesize a swamp creature. It actually has to be found somewhere. Not that the discoverers of technetium really just put a bunch of neutrons and protons and electrons together and said, “OK, here’s your element.” It had been created by the breaking up of bigger elements. And its properties were partly a matter of deduction and partly a matter of discovery. It is, for instance, the lowest-numbered (thus smallest) element to have no isotopes that aren’t radioactive. Every single variation of technetium ever found is radioactive, though generally not very strongly, and they have different half-lives (a half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of a given element to decay into something else).

This actually makes some isotopes of technetium very useful. The technetium-99m isotope binds nicely to certain things in the body – red blood cells, cancer cells, calcium deposits – so that you can see where they are in medical diagnostic imaging, and it has a half-life of about 6 hours, which means that it pretty much all goes away fairly quickly after the imaging test is done. It fills a spot and then makes itself scarce. No wonder it was so hard to find it. It’s almost like a Snuffleupagus, except that everyone believes it must be there, though it’s not there when they look again.

So there it is. A discovery that involves two creations that are really just use of bits that were already present: the technetium in the residue of cyclotron waste, and the word technetium made from an existing Greek root and morphology. With several false starts on each.

One response to “technetium

  1. And right before technetium is one of the strangest tasting words I’ve ever tried to wrap my tongue around, Molybdenum! Moly bd enum? Moly b denum? Johnny B Goode? Hawaii 5 Oh? Wait, getting silly here, moe LEB duh num. What a word.

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