Branding the Elements: Berkeley Stakes its Claims on the Periodic Table

By Brendan Buhler

Let the other universities brand themselves with the presidents they’ve produced, the corporations they’ve midwifed, their location in a small town outside of Boston, or their number one football team.

At Berkeley, we’re OK with being number 97. On the periodic table of elements. You may have heard of “the table,” as we call it around here. It’s sort of the ingredients list for the universe. All of it, including presidents, corporations, slushy college towns, and inferior (spiritually) football teams.

Yup. Good ol‘ 97, berkelium, Bk for short. Or you could look us up under number 98, californium. Mind you, we didn’t name these elements after ourselves until after we had graciously bestowed like honor on an entire continent or two when our researchers synthesized and named number 95, americium. Modesty, you know.

And who could forget the most exciting element Berkeley introduced to the world, number 94, plutonium? Really, it’s probable that no other university has done as much to threaten the existence of human civilization. Sorry, Yale.

And then there’s seaborgium, lawrencium, astatine, and on and on. Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory can claim 16 elements. That’s about 14 percent of the known periodic table that’s ours, indisputably.

Well, maybe not indisputably….

We speak here of the great and terrible Transfermium Wars, the only atomic wars the United States ever fought with the Soviet Union, wars of such animosity that they outlasted the existence of the Soviet Union by several years. Happily for the rest of the world, the radiation was confined to the labs and the war was fought with words.

Prior to 1957, the discovery and naming of new atomic elements was easy: Berkeley discovered them and named them. All the way up to 100, fermium, and 101, mendelevium.

In 1957, however, some upstarts with a cyclotron at the Nobel Institute in Sweden claimed to have discovered 102, which they named nobelium. In 1958, a Berkeley team led by Albert Ghiorso fired up its cyclotron, and couldn’t replicate the Swedish results but found another isotope of 102 and said, for the sake of clarity, let’s keep calling it nobelium.

Meanwhile, at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research lab in the Soviet Union, Georgy Flerov was leading a team of scientists with their own atom smasher. Flerov’s team would claim to have discovered nobelium in 1956 (but not to have published their results) and to have synthesized it again in 1958.

On and on it went through the ’60s and ’70s, with both labs synthesizing elements 103, 104, 105, and 106, and both labs challenging each other’s results. Finally, in 1986, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry created a panel of scientists from neither country to look into who discovered what and when. They were called the Transfermium Working Group.

The TWG spent five years interviewing scientists at both labs and reviewing papers. They held weeklong meetings in seven different countries. Finally, they issued a report. They said that the hunt for new and fleeting elements was a difficult and complex task, interpreting the results even more so, and it was not always easy to say when discovery became a certainty. They thanked everyone for their work.

And then they said the Russians (and by now, they were Russians, not Soviets) had discovered element 102, nobelium, in, confusingly enough, 1966. Elements 103, 104, and 105 were ties. Berkeley was awarded credit for element 106, which Berkeley had named after its team member, the legendary nuclear chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg.

Berkeley’s Ghiorso and Seaborg were appalled. The response they sent to the International Union’s newsletter said use by “the supposedly impartial TWG” of unpublished Russian papers and “retrospective reasoning” was “highly irregular” and “manifestly unfair.”

The next year the TWG issued its naming recommendations, suggesting that the element 104 should be named after the location of the Russian lab in Dubna, making it dubnium. And they said that no element should be named after a living person—no seaborgium.

Berkeley and others howled that Seaborg had, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists put it, “disqualified himself by failing to expire.” They pointed out that no such objections had been made against either Albert Einstein (99, einsteinium) or Enrico Fermi (100, fermium).

Eventually in 1997, the International Union issued its final pronouncement. Element 106 would be seaborgium. In a shuffle, element 105 became dubnium. (Poor element 105 has had five different names—Berkeley partisans still call it hahnium.)

East–West tensions have since eased. These days, scientists in Dubna collaborate with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Together they have bragging rights to two elements: flerovium (114) and livermorium (116).

From the Spring 2014 Branding issue of California.
Filed under: Science + Health
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What about the infamous 118? I guess we’re not staking any claims on that one, eh?
Glenn Seaborg had an open mind, along with a great smile. Both can be seen at, as he accepts the capability of three dimensions to bring the f-block back home. A later development of the periodic table model he selected for the photo is at, and a PowerPoint at shows the flow of development of the ever involving periodic table. Roy, 773,271.0318
I think the correct spelling should be “Flerov” not “Flernov”.
Thanks for pointing out our spelling and naming errors. We have fixed them online and will run a correction in the next issue of California magazine.
“International Union of PURE and Applied Chemistry”
Ouch. Yes. Thank you both for catching those. The infamy, the shame. And I spent all that time worried I’d misspell hahnium, with the response to the IUPAC’s report from the Flerov Lab sitting on the desk next to me.
A very nice article. UC Berkeley and LBNL are still very much inloved in new element research. Our group confirmed the initial discovery by GSI of element 110 (darmstadtium, Ds), and of 114 (isotopes 286 and 287, flerovium, Fl)\ that was first produced by a Dubna (Russia)/LLNL collaboration. These confirmations we performed at LBNL’s 88-incg cyclotron. We also participated in the framework of an international collaboration in an additional confirmation of element 114 (isotopes 288 and 289) at GSI in Germany. Furthemore, at the 88-inch cyclotron, we produced a new isotpe of element 114 with 285 nucleons and observed successive emissions of alpha particles that yielded new isotopes of copernicium (element 112), darmstadtium (element 110), hassium (element 108), seaborgium (element 106), and rutherfordium (element 104). Rutherfordium ended the chain when it decayed by spontaneous fission. Recently, we collaborated with international colleagues on the confirmation of the existence element 115 at GSI. Heino Nitsche (, Professor of Chemistry Heavy Element Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group at LBNL Reprints available upon request
Comment on the naming of Element 106. In 1993 our small LBNL/UC Berkeley Heavy Element Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group led by Darleane Hoffman and Ken Gregorich decided it was important to confirm the 1974 discovery of element 106 by Albert Ghiorso & co-workers so they could propose a name. (UPAC had recently proclaimed that in order to prevent lengthy disputes about assignment of discovery and right to name a new element, it must be confirmed by an independent group before the discoverers could propose a name for it.) In 1974 we conducted experiments at the LBNL 88-Inch Cyclotron which completely verified the original experiments (Phys. Rev. Lett. 72, 1423 (1994) and Albert Ghiorso on behalf of the discoverers (after getting permission from Seaborg who was part of the discovery team) proposed the name “Seaborgium”. This first met opposition from IUPAC because Seaborg was still alive but after no rule against naming after a living person could be found “Seaborgium” with symbol Sg was finally approved in 1997 while Seaborg was still alive and “could prove it” as he liked to say and he had photos taken while standing by the “Table” and pointing to his element. Seaborg considered this a much higher honor than the Nobel Prize as he believed the symbol Sg on the Periodic Table would long be recognized while few people will remember details about who got Nobel Prizes or when! Darleane C. Hoffman (
Are there photos of Seaborg with periodic tables showing Sg other than the picture of him holding the Alexander Arrangement of Elements (an AP photo by Susan Ragan) that was used with his obituaries? Roy Alexander (
Thanks Darleane, for the photo of Dr. Seaborg with the flat wall periodic table chart. I’ve put it online at I did a little photoshop sharpening, which revealed the add-on strip of element data boxes in the crucial area. I have also have online a short series of communications I had with him in 1997 regarding his appraisal of my 3D element arrangement system at, where it has been generally accessible for years from (Note his periodic table tie!) Roy Alexander (
many years ago, I had heard the story that Seaborg (and his team) had plotted out the names so it would read Americium Universitium Californium Berkelium, but that the naming committee got wise and that is how there is Curium in the middle and Californium following Berkelium. Since this article does not mention that tale, I presume it is not true. More is the pity.
I made a short video on the discovery on Mendelevium by Albert Ghiroso and colleagues at Berkeley and uses actual footage shot by KQED in 1955. It is called “The Element Hunters” Here is the link Claude Lyneis. There was no controversy about Element 101.