Periodic Table (tin), Amundsen, Scott and Antarctica

Earlier I posted a story about meeting Glenn Seaborg, who participated in the discovery of about ten elements, and getting his autograph and his entering Sg (for Seaborgium) in the element 106 place in the periodic table I brought to the dinner where he was the honoree and main speaker. Element 106 was named for him a year or so after the dinner making him the first living person to have an element in the periodic table named for him.

My daughter knew of my interest and for the last Christmas she got me a large periodic table that I will get framed and mount over my desk, a book; “The Periodic Table” by Eric Scerri, that I am yet to read, and another; “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean that I have trouble putting down. There is so much fascinating information and so many stories about the personalities and discoveries of the elements that I had no idea about. If only my chemistry professor in college had presented some of this kind of information I might have learned more. One such sad but interesting story involving tin follows.

An Unfortunate Lack of Knowledge about Tin

One hundred years ago no one had ever reached the South Pole and Robert Scott and a band of Englishman were planning to try to be the first to reach ninety degrees south latitude. They carefully organized the attempt, selecting the supplies, and arranging to drop off some food and fuel (kerosene) at selected locations to be used on the return trip, thereby reducing the loads to be pulled by the dogs on the way to the pole. Not all of the party planned to continue to the pole but were support groups to help Scott and a few others to go the distance.

For months Scott and his final party of five slogged along and finally reached the South Pole only to find a brown tent, a Norwegian flag, and “an annoyingly friendly letter!”  Roald Amundsen’s group had beaten them to the pole by about one month.

(On the troop ship to Europe in 1945 I vividly remember reading and enjoying Amundsen’s book describing his trip to the South Pole, an amazing but successful ordeal. I think it took me a few days to “warm up” after reading it!)

Scott wrote in his journal, “Great God! This is an awful place. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.” They couldn’t and didn’t, and as their journals, found later, noted they had problems of starvation, scurvy, dehydration, etc. But the worst was the lack of fuel for heating, cooking, and melting snow for water.

Scott had carefully planned the fuel storage against the leakage in extreme cold that he had experienced before when using leather seals on the kerosene containers that ended up leaking badly. He lost almost half of his fuel because of the leather seals. So this time he had carefully soldered the cans using very pure tin. Unfortunately the better or purer the tin the more it degraded in extreme cold with a whitish “rust” creeping over and weakening it to the point where leaks occurred and much of the stored kerosene was lost. Not only was the kerosene mostly lost but it had leaked on the food supplies in many of the caches and spoiled them. The tin didn’t rust but changed to a different, beta, atomic arrangement which was crumbly and much weaker than the, alpha, normal structure.

The winter weather we’ve been having in the US recently can start the “leprosy” process and extreme temperatures accelerates the action. Some colder cities in Eur-Asia have stories, perhaps a bit exaggerated, but not totally, about new and very cold tin organ pipes disintegrating into tin dust at the first blast by the organist. Another, also possibly apocryphal, story is that Napoleon lost the battle for Moscow somewhat because the tin latches holding soldiers’ coats closed cracked apart and contributed to the freezing and the loss of fighting effectiveness of the French Army.

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  • Eric Scerri  On March 8, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Thanks for mentioning my book and glad that your daughter bought you a copy.
    Hoping you will get round to actually reading it. Let me know what you think.
    It’s different from Sam Kean’s book in that I concentrate on the table rather than the elements. I examine the extent to which quantum physics does or does not explain the periodic table which has been around since the 1860s. It’s remarkable that neither quantum physics nor relativity theory nor anything else that physics has devised has done anything to topple the periodic system. The chemists who discovered it were really onto something.

    eric scerri
    UCLA, Chemistry Department.

    • will1be  On March 8, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      Professor Scerri,
      Thanks for dropping by my blog. I have started your book and plan to comment on it when finished.

  • Eric Scerri  On March 8, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Oh and the book in question for those who might be interested is,

    Eric Scerri, The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Also available from Amazon of course.

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