Photo/IllutrationKosuke Morita, a nuclear physicist and leader of the research team that discovered a new element Nihonium, points at the element 113 on a periodic table at a news conference in the Riken institute in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, on Dec. 31, 2015. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

You are a bona fide science buff if you know Julius Lothar Meyer (1830-1895) was the German chemist who discovered the periodicity of elements in the latter half of the 19th century, only to see the credit go to Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907).

At the time, European chemists were competing to formulate a method for the classification of elements.

"They were beginning to see that massive profits could be made by beating the competition in the chemical synthesis of drugs and oils," explained Masahiro Ono, 53, a curator at the Osaka Science Museum. "This also spurred cut-throat competition among the nations of Europe."

There were 60-plus known elements at the time. In the summer of 1868, Meyer recognized that a regular pattern could emerge if the elements were arranged systematically.

But a draft of his "periodic table of elements" was somehow never printed, and remained unpublished in his colleague's possession.

Mendeleev became interested in this subject while studying in Germany. Upon returning to his native Russia, he devoted himself to perfecting his own method of classification of the elements. In February 1869, he completed his periodic table, and published it immediately.

According to Ono, Mendeleev was a bit of a contentious egomaniac. Claiming his achievement as entirely his own, he reportedly declared to the effect that "there was nothing he learned from Meyer's research."

And Meyer not only made no attempt to challenge Mendeleev's claim, he even recognized his competitor's achievement like a very good sport.

In later years, Mendeleev won praise for his foresight every time a new element was discovered, and his name became immortalized in science textbooks around the world.

Meyer, on the other hand, never had his critical biography published anywhere, except in his native Germany. In fact, only few people are aware of his achievements.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mendeleev's periodic table.

I am thinking of the paper-thin difference that separates a forgotten scientist and another whose name remains deeply etched in history.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.