Research at University of British Columbia receives historical recognition

The groundbreaking research of chemist Neil Bartlett proving that the noble gases are not inert will be designated an International Historic Chemical Landmark in a special ceremony at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on May 23. The noble gases are now used in eye surgery and to fight tumors. The American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, sponsors the Landmarks program.

Before Bartlett’s research, chemists had believed the noble gases, also called inert or rare gases, were chemically unable to react. That meant, according to the conventional wisdom, that these gases – helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon – could not form compounds. The supposed inability of the rare gases to react chemically became a staple of textbooks.

That changed in the early 1960s when Neil Bartlett, Ph.D., then a chemist at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated the first reaction of a noble gas. Bartlett combined xenon with a platinum fluoride to create the first noble gas compound. Today, noble gas compounds produce laser beams that are used in eye surgery and create anti-tumor agents, and they show promise as green chemistry reagents for more environmentally-friendly processes.

James D. Burke, Ph.D., Chair of the ACS Board of Directors, will present a commemorative bronze plaque to Grant Ingram, Ph.D., Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. Also participating in the plaque presentation will be David Schwass, Vice President and incoming President of the Canadian Society for Chemistry, cosponsor of the Landmark.

Bartlett was born in the United Kingdom in 1932. He was appointed a lecturer in chemistry at the University of British Columbia in 1958; in 1966, he became a professor of chemistry at Princeton University while also serving as a member of the research staff at Bell Laboratories. In 1969 he joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, retiring in 1993. Bartlett also served as a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for 30 years.

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The American Chemical Society established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program to commemorate significant developments in the history of chemistry, especially those that benefit society. Since its inception in 1992, the program has designated more than 50 Landmarks, including the development of nylon, the production of synthetic rubber, and the discovery of penicillin.

From time to time, the ACS cooperates with other national chemical societies to designate International Historic Chemical Landmarks. To read about these and other exciting Landmarks, please visit www.chemistry.org/landmarks.

The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.


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