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Cambridge University Science Magazine
In December 2016, IUPAC announced that the 113th element in the periodic table would be officially named nihonium. Derived from the Japanese word for Japan, this marked the first atomic element named after an Asian country. And a national dream for Japanese science since Masataka Ogawa’s time. Ogawa, who narrowly missed having another element named after the country over a century earlier, now had his work vindicated.

While studying the mineral thorianite in London from 1904 to 1906, Ogawa believed he hadidentified the then-undiscovered element 43. With advice from his mentor, William Ramsay, Ogawa assigned the element nipponium after his homeland. However, Ogawa’s announcement failed to gain widespread recognition, as no other researchers could replicate his results. Undeterred, Ogawa returned to Japan and continued investigating nipponium for nearly twenty years, but his efforts were futile. His students grew doubtful of nipponium’s existence, mocking it as a “phantom element”.

In 1925, two German chemists (Ida Noddack-Tacke and Walter Noddack) claimed to discover not one but two elements — 43 and 75. But like many predecessors, they also misidentified element 43, and its identity remained unconfirmed until Perrier and Segré characterised it in 1937, naming it technetium. Element 75, however, was approved and named rhenium after the Noddacks’ homeland.

Across oceans, Ogawa continued to work past retirement, struggling to identify nipponium’s place on the periodic table. The “phantom element” perplexed him until he died in 1930. This mystery remained unsolved until 1996, when an investigation by Kenji Yoshihara concluded that nipponium was, in reality, rhenium. In fact, Ogawa had found element 75 twenty years before the Noddacks but misidentified it as element 43. Due to this mistake, Ogawa lost the right to name the element, and his contribution was nearly forgotten.

Element 113 was thus named nihonium in tribute to Ogawa’s work and tenacity.

Anthony Phung is an undergraduate at St Catharine’s College.