Today in Science History – February 19 – Ferdinand Reich and the Discovery of Indium

Ferdinand Reich
Ferdinand Reich (1799 – 1882)

February 19 is Ferdinand Reich’s birthday. Reich was a German chemist who co-discovered the element indium with Hieronymus Richter. Reich was searching for thallium in some of the local zinc ores and isolated an unknown substance that appeared to be an element with the same chemical properties of thallium but lighter.

One of the new tools for chemistry was the technique of spectroscopy. When a substance is heated, the light it emits can be passed through a prism to separate individual bands of color unique to each element. Richter burned samples of this unknown substance and saw a vivid indigo spectral line. This bright indigo line is where this new element gets its name: indium.

Indium is a shiny, silver-white metal with element number 49. It is a very soft metal that when bent emits a ‘cry’ that is a high pitched squeak when bent. It is commonly used in semiconductor electronics, mirrors and as a coating for high-performance bearings. It’s most common use today is in liquid crystal displays and touchscreens.

Fun Fact: Reich was colorblind. This would definitely cause difficulty with his study of color spectra of compounds and elements. Richter was Reich’s assistant to help him overcome this problem.

Notable Science History Events for February 19

2013 – Robert Coleman Richardson died.

Richardson was an American physicist who shares the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics with David Lee and Douglas Osheroff for their discovery of the superfluidity of helium-3. Superfluidity of helium describes the state liquid helium takes when cooled to nearly absolute zero when the viscosity of the liquid suddenly becomes zero.

2012 – Renato Dulbecco died.

Renato Dulbecco
Renato Dulbecco (1914 – 2012)

Dulbecco was an Italian virologist who was awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine with David Baltimore and Howard Temin for discoveries concerning the relationships and interactions between cell genetic material and tumor viruses. They showed how oncoviruses could incorporate their genetic code into healthy cells to produce mutations which could form cancer cells.

1988 – André F. Cournand died.

Cournand was a French doctor who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Werner Forssmann and Dickinson Richards for their work with heart catheters and their effect on circulation. He worked with Richards to perfect Forssmann’s surgical technique where a catheter is inserted at the elbow to reach the heart. This allowed a doctor to diagnose several heart conditions without major invasive surgery. They also applied this technique to the pulmonary artery to diagnose lung diseases.

1983 – William Clouser Boyd died.

Boyd was an American immunologist who, together with his wife, Lyle were best known for their worldwide survey of blood types and the discovery blood type is an inherited trait not influenced by the environment. They grouped populations by blood types and hypothesized there were 13 distinct races with different blood group profiles.

1943 – Tim Hunt was born.

Hunt is a British biochemist who discovered cyclin, a protein which controls the cell-division cycle. He found cyclin was produced when an egg cell is first fertilized and levels steadily increase until they drop suddenly at cell division. He showed cyclin binds to protein kinases to regulate cell division. This discovery would earn him a third of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

1941 – David Gross was born.

Gross is an American physicist who shares the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics with Frank Wilczek and David Politzer for the discovery of asymptotic freedom. Asymptotic freedom is a property of gauge theory which causes interactions between particles to become asymptotically weaker as energy increases and length scale decreases.

1956 – Roderick MacKinnon was born.

MacKinnon is an American biochemist who was awarded half of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on ion channels, the proteins that control the cell potential of cells. His work described how these proteins generate nerve impulses by opening paths in cell membranes to allow ions to carry electrical charges across the cells.

1955 – Element 101 first synthesized.

Mendelevium is a radioactive metal.

Albert Ghiorso, Glenn T. Seaborg, Gregory Robert Choppin, Bernard G. Harvey, and team leader Stanley G. Thompson produced the first atoms of element 101 at the University of California, Berkeley.

They created these atoms by firing alpha particles at an einsteinium target in their 60-inch cyclotron. Their run created only 17 atoms of element 101.

Element 101 was named mendelevium in honor of Dmitri Mendeleev. The original symbol for mendelevium was Mv, but was changed three years later to the current Md.

1916 – Ernst Mach died.

Ernst Mach
Ernst Mach (1838 – 1916)

Mach was an Austrian physicist who primarily researched how people perceive their surrounding through studies in acoustics and optics. His work with optical interference, shock waves, and the Doppler effect led to theories where measured phenomenon depended on the frame of reference of the observer and their relationship to the phenomenon. This would lead to much of Einstein’s theory of relativity. He is also known for the unit of speed known as the Mach number, the ratio of the speed of an object to the speed of sound.

1834 – Herman Snellen was born.

Herman Snellen
Herman Snellen (1834 – 1908)

Snellen was a Dutch ophthalmologist who created the standard eye chart still in use today to determine visual acuity. These charts are comprised of 10 letters that start with large type at the top which gets progressively smaller towards the bottom.

1799 – Ferdinand Reich was born.

1526 – Charles de L’Écluse was born.

Carolus Clusius
Charles de L’Écluse or Carolus Clusius (1525 – 1609)

Charles de L’Écluse, also known as Carolus Clusius, was a botanist whose work on bulbs and tubers was responsible for the introduction of tulips to the Netherlands and potatoes into central Europe.

Clusius’ work with tulips and their cultivation lead to an economic crisis in the Netherlands. Tulips were suddenly fashionable and began to command high prices for a single tulip bulb. Speculation in tulips hit a peak in February of 1637, a bulb sold for ten times the yearly earnings of a skilled craftsman. The bubble popped and tulips were no more expensive than other flowers by the following May.

1473 – Nicolaus Copernicus was born.

Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543)

Copernicus was a Prussian astronomer who first devised a model of the universe that moved the Earth from the center of all things. His model had the Earth and other celestial bodies revolving around the Sun. He also pointed out the Earth rotates on its axis to cause day and night.

This idea was picked up and expanded upon by several influential astronomers such as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei. This era of scientific expansion is known as the Copernican Revolution.

Element 112 was named copernicium after Copernicus.