The occasion of Dmitri Mendeleev’s birthday seemed like a good opportunity to recognize another great hero of the periodic table and to relate one of my favorite anecdotes about him: Glenn T. Seaborg (Wikipedia), who, among his various stellar achievements, won the 1951 Nobel Prize for “discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements.” By the time of his death in 1999, Seaborg had participated in the discovery and isolation of ten superheavy elements. Shortly after the official 1997 recognition of the name seaborgium for element 106, Jeffrey Winters, writing in the January 1998 issue of Discover Magazine, made the following observation:
Not only is Seaborg the first living scientist to have an element named after him, he’s also the only person who could receive mail addressed only in elements: Seaborgium, Lawrencium (for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory where he still works), Berkelium, Californium, Americium. But don’t forget the zip code.
Naming an element after a living scientist generated significant controversy among the international chemistry community of the time. At a talk in 1995, Seaborg himself famously quipped: “There has been some reluctance on the part of the Commission for Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry to accept the name because I’m still alive and they can prove it, they say.”