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September 16, 2008
Neil Bartlett, 1932-2008
I’ve neglected to note the death of Neil Bartlett, famous for showing that the noble gases would in fact form chemical bonds. This work was a real triumph, since the great majority of scientific opinion at the time was that such compounds were impossible. Bartlett, though, formed a rather startling compound while working on the platinum fluorides, which he realized was actually a salt of dioxygen. The idea that oxygen would be oxidized to a cation in an isolable salt was weird enough at the time, and Bartlett realized that if this could happen, then the same system should be able to oxidize xenon.
And so it did. It’s difficult to convey how much nerve it takes to do experiments like this. I don’t mean the dangers of working with such reactive fluorine compounds, although that’s certainly not to be ignored. (Bartlett spent much of his career working in this area, and only a skilled experimentalist could do that and remain in one piece). No, it’s actually very hard to get out there on the edge of what’s known and do things as crazy as making salts of oxygen and fluorides of noble gases, Consider that if you’d lined up a hundred high-ranking chemists to vet these experiments beforehand, most of them would have pursed their lips and said “Are you sure that you’re not just wasting your time on this stuff?” It takes nerve, and not everyone has it – but Bartlett did, and he had the brains and the skills to go along with it. You need all three.
There’s a good appreciation of him in Nature, which points out – to my mind, absolutely correctly – that he should have won the Nobel Prize for this work. In fact, I thought he had for a long time, and only a few years ago realized that I had that wrong. (I may have been reinforced in my opinion by a statement in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table). I think that if you polled chemists as a group, you’d find that a majority would be under the same impression – and if that’s not a sign of the highest-level work, having everyone surprised that you never got a Nobel, then I don’t know what is.
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