27 No. 3
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Simples and Compounds
In the Jan-Feb 2005 CI,
Claudio Giomini, Mario E. Cardinali, and Liberato Cardellini,
put forth a rationale for replacing the term “element”
with simple substance. They wrote, “To make a clear-cut
distinction between elements and elementary substances, we
suggest replacing the latter term with “simple substances,”
a term that, according to Scerri and Laing, was employed,
with this meaning, by Mendeleev himself.” The following
letters were received in response.
by Eric Scerri
I would like to express my agreement with Giomini,
Cardinali, and Cardellini for drawing attention to the fact
that substances like diatomic oxygen and electrolytic copper
occur as simple substances.1 However,
two qualifications should be made. As the authors state, I
have previously also made this point, and have invoked the
name of Mendeleev for also having done so.2
Nevertheless, Mendeleev used a slightly different term, namely
More importantly, the authors seem to deny the status of elementhood altogether to simple substances. This appears a little excessive given the entrenched use of the term “element” to mean a simple substance such as diatomic oxygen that can be isolated.
The notion of a simple body was first introduced by Lavoisier as a means of ridding chemistry from all talk of elements as the invisible principles of the ancient Greek philosophers and alchemists. This is how modern chemistry was born, by denying the metaphysical aspect of elements. But as many authors have pointed out, neither Lavoisier nor anyone else has quite succeeded in eradicating the more philosophical sense of the term element. Although we need to recognize the metaphysical foundations of chemistry, we cannot hope to deny substances like di-oxygen—that can be isolated—their status as “elements.”
What the authors might consider doing is drawing on the dual sense of the term element. They could make a distinction between element as a simple substance and element as a basic substance, the latter of which they clearly allude to in their description of “element.” This terminology was first proposed by the radiochemist Fritz Paneth who was in fact responsible for the term “simple substance” that the authors seem to have adopted.3
1. C. Giomini, M.E. Cardinali, L. Cardellini,
2005 (1), 18.
2. E.R. Scerri, Minds and Molecules, N. Bhushan, S. Rosenfeld (eds.), New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, 51–72.
3. F.A. Paneth, Foundations of Chemistry, 2003, 5, 113–145. Reprinted from a translation of a lecture given in 1931.
Eric Scerri <email@example.com> teaches in the chemistry department at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, USA and is the editor of Foundations of Chemistry, <www.kluweronline.com/issn/1386-4238>.
by John E. Hammond
I believe the change suggested by Giomini et al (Jan-Feb
2005 CI, p.18) is not necessary. Chemists generally
understand the difference between elements and elementary
substances and use the term “element” as a shorthand
descriptor. I do not know any chemist who would not understand
that diamond, graphite, or fullerenes are all different forms
of the element carbon—the common names take care of
differentiation. Non-chemists are unlikely to understand the
distinction and could become further confused by having “two
types of elements.”
John E. Hammond <JohnHammond@wrigley.com> is in the R&D Department of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
last modified 26 April 2005.
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