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The Life and Work of Charles James
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The New Elements
At the time James began his work in 1906 in Durham, there were only two undiscovered elements among the rare earths. Since they were part of the rare earth group he was putting in order, their absence must have played a large part in his thinking. The following year, he began to examine ytterbium, number 70, then considered a single element. Using his newly created method, he discovered a new element appeared, atomic number 71. He then began to prepare it for publication, but still held back to go over the material carefully, as was his wont. At the same time two European chemists published their discovery of number 71. One was Georges Urbain of France, who named his version lutetium, after the ancient name for Paris. And the other was an Austrian, Carl Auer von Welsbach, who named his cassiopium.

James was very disappointed and never published his process for isolating number 71. However, his work was known, and he has often been given credit as co-discoverer. Three years later he received the Nichols Gold Medal for his impressive work on the rare earths. Probably his discovery of element 71 played a part in the award.

Suddenly, in 1911, he decided to apply for a job in Australia. This, after becoming full professor and head of the department, and after receiving the gold medal! Was this the old longing for the unknown? He did apply, but in the end nothing happened—a mystery. He remained in Durham.

Charles James
Charles James

Now there was only one undiscovered element in the rare earths, and that was the mysterious 61. The question was: did it exist at all? That it probably did was suggested by the fact that 60 and 62 had already been discovered. Sir William Ramsey had written James as early as 1912 that gaps in atomic weights between known elements suggested that another element did exist. Since this was his main research area, James took the hint and worked in it for 13 or 14 years. However, in the 1920s, it became the favorite quest for almost everybody. There were two Americans that stood out, Charles James and B. Smith Hopkins of the University of Illinois. Interestingly Illinois had offered Hopkins' position to James first, and James had refused it. Was there a rivalry there? This historic struggle was recently reexamined in 2006 by Clarence Murphy, retired faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote an article in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, called "Charles James, B. Smith Hopkins, and the Tangled Web of Element 61." 9 He writes, "The history of the search for and discovery of Element 61 is one of the most complex and confused of any of the elements in the periodic table." 10 But early in 1926, both men felt that they had found 61. 11 And James took time out to send his sample to J.M. Cork at the University of Michigan to provide the X-ray spectrum of his material.

But at the same time, Hopkins sent his paper on his discovery of 61 to The Journal of the American Chemical Society, to be published as soon as possible. Arthur B. Lamb, the editor, then sent the paper to Charles James—the expert, to see if he approved its publication. This was a crisis. If Hopkins' work were to be published there, the publishing of James' paper would represent a conflict of interest. James, the man he was, approved the acceptance of the other man's work. And it was published. At the end of 1926, James published his version in an obscure Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where it was scarcely noticed.

However, element 61 became the great battleground—in fact, a nationalistic battleground for European chemists. 12 James' version sat unchallenged and ignored. In the end, when 61 was discovered, all these versions were thought to be incorrect because their arguments were based on the natural world.

One cannot leave the issue here, because there is another chapter during World War II. James, who had by then passed away, still had a part. It was the James Method that was used to purify the uranium used for the atomic bomb. And not to leave out Number 61, it was the exploding of the atom bomb that released that mysterious element, found for the first time hidden among other radioactive results. It took the use of ion exchangers to separate out 61. This provided the unequivocal proof of the identification of 61 in 1947 by Jacob Marinsky, Lawrence Glendenin, and Charles Coryell at the nuclear research laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. They named 61 promethium; it was radioactive, never appearing in nature and having the half-life of 17 years. At this time it does not exist at all, except on a distant star And it sits apart from the other rare earths.

However, the Oak Ridge laboratories in 1949 published the L Spectrum (element 61) isolated at Oak Ridge and compared it with the spectra obtained by James and Hopkins. The six spectral lines reported by James and the two by Hopkins were remarkably close to those determined from the authentic sample of element 61. 13 This opens up a mystery. It appears that the American chemists, particularly James, had touched on 61 in nature.

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