Saturday, October 3, 2009

58. Cerium


Cerium—At Last!

An account of the discovery of cerium may be of some interest to the general reader, not so much for what it tells us about chemistry as for the window it opens into that particular moment in history.

Cerium was first identified in the winter of 1803/4 at Vesmanland, Sweden, by the geologist Wilhelm Hisinger and the chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius. Hisinger brought Berzelius a mineral sample from his father's mines, and together they determined it to be the ore of a previously unknown element. Almost simultaneously, the German chemist Martin Klaproth independently made the same discovery. All three men wanted to name the element after the newly discovered asteroid Ceres—understandably enough, for at the time all of Europe was gripped by an enthusiasm for science, and meteor mania was the madness of the day.

When Berzelius told his wife of his discovery, she fainted dead away. Nor was she alone in her excitement. Spontaneous parades were held in cities throughout Sweden on hearing the news, and in parts of Norway and Finland as well. A day of celebration was declared in Stockholm, where merchants stood in the streets flinging free samples of their wares to the celebrants. Angry mobs gathered in Paris to demand to know why their chemists had not made this discovery.

Word spread in ripples through Europe and the rest of the world. Everywhere (except France) the reaction was the same—a giddy awareness of the promise of chemistry coupled with an avid anticipation of the perfect world that seemed to be imminent. Church bells rang on six continents. Schools were let out everywhere. Statues were raised to Hilsinger and Berzelius in lands where not one person in five hundred could have located Sweden on a world map.

Documentation of the find was of course sent to the Royal Academy for the Advancement of Chemistry in London, whose members gathered in solemn conclave to evaluate and pass judgment upon the evidence.

Meanwhile, a hopeful populace gathered outside the Royal Academy headquarters. During the day, they murmured and wondered. At night, they stood in candlelight vigils.

At last, the president of the RAAC emerged onto a small balcony overlooking Trafalgar Square. The throngs of citizens choking the square hushed at the sight of the slim distinguished figure. He paused for a second, then raised his hands high above his head. Into the waiting silence he declared, "We have an element!"

The rioting lasted a week.

This was, of course, before the advent of television, and long before even the invention of radio. People made their own amusements then. They had a lot more time to fill.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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