In their element

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Harman.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Harman.

Bailey Stover

Scientific institutions present impact of founders’ influence, contributions

Nine representative groups from scientific institutions around the world met at the Stephanie Harman Foundation for Chemistry Education in Columbia, MO on Sept. 25 to discuss their achievements and pay homage to their respective founders.
Renowned educator Stephanie Harman organized the event. She dictated that groups will present to their fellow participants in chronological order by their founding, beginning with Democritus.
A philosopher during the mid-4th century B.C., Democritus came from an affluent family in Abdera or Meletus. He was a simple man who learned from the Maji and used his inheritance to travel the world. Though many of his works have been lost over time, the Democritus Institute of Chemistry Pioneers explained, his ideas as an atomist added and expanded upon the works of Greek philosophers like Leucippus and Anaxagoras.
While his studies were highly inaccurate because of his technological limitations, according to Harman, Democritus’ atomic theory proposed that “all matter is made up of small, indestructible units” called atoms. He came to this idea by discovering that if one divides a stone into two pieces, both pieces must have the same properties as the original stone. With this information he decided a piece must exist that is so minuscule that it can no longer be divided, a form of matter he called “atomos,” meaning indivisible. He was unable to prove his theory, but he postulated there was empty space between atoms and believed atoms had an infinite number varying in type, shape and size.
Because atoms have no internal matter, Democritus said, they cannot be destroyed or changed. His works were overlooked for centuries, his basic idea for atomic theory was accurate. With his mind experiments, however, he was unable to understand atomic details such as mass, charge or composition. Through his work, Democritus contributed the word “atom” to the vocabulary of chemists who followed him.
For the next 1,300 or so years, no new or significant discoveries were made pertaining to atomic theory. Then, in 1766, English meteorologist and chemist John Dalton, was born. Building from the groundwork laid by Democritus’ ideas, the Dalton School of Meteorology and Atomic Theory stated, Dalton developed four axioms pertaining to the relationship between elements and compounds. His theory of partial pressures explained how in a mixture of non-reacting gasses, the total pressure exerted is equal to the sum of the partial pressures of the individual gasses.
Through his comprehension of modern atomic theory, Dalton understood all matter is composed of atoms, and thus all elements are made of atoms. He said that while all atoms of a given element are identical, different elements have unique characteristics. While this idea was later proven to be false, it contributed to the modern understanding of isotopes. Dalton believed compounds formed when atoms combine in “small, whole-number ratios.”
The weight of a compound, Dalton said, can be expressed as a ratio of its composing element’s weights. His knowledge of ratios was insignificant, but it later contributed to the understanding of moles. He also claimed that atoms are found in different ratios depending on the compound they are contained in. Because of his significant contributions to atomic theory, his foundation said, Dalton is known as the father of modern atomic theory.
Then, in 1834, 10 years before Dalton’s death, Dmitri Mendeleev was born in Tobolsk, Siberia to a large family. While his early life was full of tragedy and loss, he was still able to make an important contribution to chemistry later in his life. Mendeleev spent years in school researching, teaching and studying abroad. His work in chemistry brought about his desire for the standardization and organization of atoms. Mendeleev observed patterns among elements, understood ideas proposed by thinkers like John Newlands and Julius Lothar Meyer, and used his knowledge to create the first periodic table. In this process he helped find eight elements, and Mendeleev would sometime move elements in the periodic table around with no proof, predicting the properties of new elements.
His ideas contributed to the development of the idea behind atomic mass. Using the law of periodicity and the law of octaves, the Mendeleev School for Interdisciplinary Study said, Mendeleev was able to create the first rendition of the modern periodic table by showing how elements can be organized by their physical and chemical properties, thus reinforcing element properties and ultimately leading to the discovery of new elements.
Born just 22 years after Mendeleev in Cheetham Hill, England, J.J. Thomson became the first person to discover the electron. Surrounded by books in his youth, Thomson attended Owens College, one of the few schools at the time to offer course in experimental physics, at the age of 14 and went on to pursue science. In 1897 Thomson’s discovery of the electron, which he originally called corpuscle, “brought about a new era of atomic physics,” the Thomson Library for Scientific Advancement announced.
By using cathode rays, electron beams from the cathode of a high-vacuum tube, Thomson was able to prove atoms contain “small, negatively charged electrons.” When atoms have negative net charges, they are considered ions. His experiments consisted of passing electric currents through gases sealed in glass tubes fitted with a positively charged anode and a negatively charged cathode, to measure how light disperses and the efficiency of electricity conduction in that environment. Prior to Thomson’s discovery, chemists commonly believed atoms were indivisible.
In 1904 he created the plum pudding model of the atom to illustrate the location of positively and negatively charged particles in the atom. Thomson determined electrons are negatively charge, are more than 1,000 times lighter than hydrogen atoms and are in all atoms. For every electron Thomson tested, the Thomson Library for Scientific Advancement said, “the ratio of its charge to its mass was constant.” Thus, the greater the mass of an atom, the more electrons it has. Through his work, Thomson contributed to the development of the mass spectrometer in the late 1920s. Following his principle contribution of the electron, he published 13 books and more than 200 papers on various subjects.
Thirty years prior to Thomson’s discovery of the electron, Marie Curie was born in Warsaw. She later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, became the Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne and in 1903 received her Doctor of Science degree. With her husband’s help, Curie discovered and researched radium and polonium.
During World-War I she examined injuries using x-rays and promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering. Curie held many prestigious national and international positions throughout her life. Her work was published in numerous scientific journals and she authored several books. In 1929 President Hoover of the United States gifted her $50,000 to purchase radium for laboratory use in Warsaw. In 1903 she was awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics, along with her husband with her husband who was given the other half, the Curie Foundation for Female Chemists (CFFC) stated. Then, in 1911 she alone was recognized for her work in radioactivity with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Not only was Curie the first woman to win this award, she was the first person ever to receive it twice. “Radiation is linked to the internal structure of the atom,” the CFFC explained, “not to the arrangement of atoms in a molecule.” This salient contribution became one of many reasons why Curie is recognized as a notable chemist. Through her work she was also able to isolate pure radium, an element about one million times more radioactive than uranium. Along with her husband, Pierre Curie, she was able to discover polonium and radium using various methods of chemical and radioactive analysis. Of the two elements they discovered, one contained mostly bismuth while the other was composed largely of barium, but both were highly radioactive. Curie became the first scientist to research and build the concept of radiation, which is essential to the modern understanding of atomic structure, especially since radiation is tied to the interior of the atom.
Just four years younger than Curie, Ernest Rutherford was born into a large family in New Zealand in 1871. Like Curie, his contributions to atomic theory dealt largely with the interior of the atom, specifically in that he was the first person to discover the nucleus. Prior to this achievement, however, Rutherford was the chair of physics at McGill University in Montreal where he discovered a new noble gas. During his time as a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, he conceptualized the nucleus and its properties, the Rutherford Academy for Advanced Mathematics claimed, specifically how the charge and mass of an atom are based in a central location. He was also able to prove the existence of alpha, beta and gamma rays in uranium radiation, coining the terms and classifying them by their unique abilities to penetrate matter. He “used radioactive decay products to probe the atom,” increasing his understanding of its structure.
Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 and was knighted in 1914. He later became a fellow and the president of the Royal Society of Arts for about 20 years. By creating the first artificially induced nuclear reaction, Rutherford is considered the father of this discipline of nuclear physics. Rutherford also “split” the atom for the first time. Along with this, the Rutherford gold foil experiment, Rutherford’s academy explained, allowed scientists to discover that all atoms possess a nucleus where all of its positive charge, and most of its mass, are located. If Thomson’s plum pudding model were correct, then alpha particles would be able to pass directly through atoms of gold. Researchers found, however, that “some alpha particles were deflected at very side angles,” thus disproving the plum pudding model of the atom. The rutherford (Rd), a unit of radioactivity, was even named in his honor. While Rutherford had multiple notable contributions to the world of chemistry, his most important regarded how the positively charged nucleus contains most of an atom’s mass while negatively charged electrons revolve around it.
Fourteen years Rutherford’s junior, Niels Bohr was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1885. Bohr studied under professor C. Christiansen, a profound physicist, and received his master’s degree in Physics in 1909. He researched atomic structure and created an atomic model alongside Rutherford. Bohr theorized electrons orbiting the nucleus occupy shells or energy levels. He used his understanding of atomic structure to explain how valence electrons are available for bonding and how the outermost electron shell relates to elemental properties. The farther from the nucleus an electron’s orbit is, the Bohr Institute of Physics explained, the more energy an electron has and the more “excited” it becomes. Because of this, Bohr illustrated how electrons are able to move to higher shells through light absorption and return to lower shells with light emission.
Bohr also worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and donated his Noble medal to the Finnish war effort during World-War II. Following World-War II, Bohr devoted the rest of his life to the peaceful application of atomic physics and advocated for a movement towards full openness between nations. The Bohr Model of the atom added to the understanding of atomic structure, specifically pertaining to the orbit of electrons in shells around the nucleus and how the number of electrons present in outer rings determines elemental properties. In addition, his prime discovery that electrons follow discrete paths when orbiting the nucleus, Bohr also had Bohrium (Bh) named after him.
In 1887, two years after Bohr’s birth, Erwin Schrödinger was born in Vienna, Austria. He became a master of eigenvalue problems in the physics of continuous media during his time at the University of Vienna, and his research during his time in school became the foundation for his later breakthroughs in quantum mechanics. Schrödinger made his greatest discovery, Schrödinger’s wave equation, during the first half of 1926. In 1933 he, along with Paul Dirac, were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for this work. Similarly to Bohr, Schrödinger spoke out against the use of the atomic bomb during World-War II. During the six years he spent at the University of Zurich, Schrödinger published a series of four papers explaining the different parts of his work in quantum mechanics. Schrödinger also dealt with the Merged Uncertainty principle, virtually the same idea as wave-particle duality. Another key aspect of his work, quantum superposition, relates directly to wave-particle duality and his quantum mechanical model of the atom. Through his model, the Schrödinger School of Quantum Mechanics stated, Schrödinger demonstrated how areas of probability are the best way to illustrate the location of electrons.
Following the principles of wave-particle duality and the Merged Uncertainty principle, the human knowledge of quantum systems is fundamentally limited because the more precise one’s knowledge of a particle’s position is, the less one is able to know about the momentum of the particle. This relationship is inversely true as well. Quantum superposition, presented through the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, explains how an electron can both exist and not exist at the same time depending on when a measurement is taken. Schrödinger’s research and quantum mechanical model of the atom showed how areas of probability are the best way to locate electrons in an atom, not orbital paths and shells like Bohr proposed. While both Schrödinger’s and Bohr’s atomic models are still used today, they serve different purposes and achieve different goals.
The final speakers at the event came from the Heisenberg Foundation for Atomic Experimentation. The most recent of the nine influential scientists, Werner Heisenberg was born in 1901 in Würzburg, Germany. He excelled academically and studied physics at the University of Munich under a multitude of prestigious scientists. By the time he was 23 he had made a name for himself in quantum mechanics, earning his PhD in 1923 and becoming qualified to teach at the university level by 1924. His work built off Schrödinger’s, and in 1927 he discovered through his work in matrix algebra that an electron’s momentum and position can never be measured at the same time.
Heisenberg used the Merged Uncertainty principle and the concept of wave-like, or wave-particle, duality to illustrate how the behaviors of some variables, including position and momentum, can only be predicted. This idea explains why atoms do not collapse on themselves, even though electrons orbiting protons logically should be attracted to each other. If Heisenberg’s idea was not correct, atoms would either collapse or have electrons fly out of the atom, which is not the case. Heisenberg relied on data and math rather than lifelike models to conduct his work through. Similarly to the ideas of Bohr and Schrödinger, Heisenberg created a famous wave equation to describe atomic orbitals.
In 1932 Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel prize for the quantum mechanical work that led him to the discovery of allotropic hydrogen. Although he made several notable contributions, the Heisenberg Foundation for Atomic Experimentation stated, he is most famous for his work showing how “electrons are housed in atomic orbitals of various shapes and energies.” In 1949 he became the first president of the German Research Council promoting German science internationally, and from 1958-1970 he taught at the University of Munich. Heisenberg’s work in quantum mechanics, specifically through the uncertainty principle, caused an ideological shift from focusing on what can be modeled to more abstract concepts in terms of understanding atoms.
From Democritus to Heisenberg, these nine foundations highlighted the importance of their founders’ contributions to chemistry and the understanding of atomic structure. While some focused on equations and others delved into the complexities of radioactivity and atomic structure, all of the founders used the ideas of their predecessors to increase the next generation’s understanding of atomic structure and importance. Without any one of these nine scientists, their establishments would not exist, and their contributions would be absent from the record of chemistry’s history. Although some of the institutions’ founders may have passed away decades ago or centuries, their legacies are honored through the work their foundations continue to pursue for the purpose of furthering the world’s comprehension of chemistry.

Which was your favorite institution and founder? Let us know in the comments below.