Stories About Chemistry
43. Element Register
There was once a rum fellow who when told about the stars, about their structure and why they emit light, exclaimed: “I can understand all that! But what I want to know is how the astronomers discovered the names of the different stars.”
Stellar catalogues contain hundreds of thousands of “christened” heavenly bodies. But don’t think that such pretty names as “Betelgeuse” or “Syrius” have been thought up for all the stars. Astronomers prefer to denote stars by a sort of code, a combination of letters and figures. If they did not there would be much confusion. But from the code the expert can easily locate the star and determine its spectral class.
The number of chemical elements is incomparably smaller than of the stars. But here also their names often conceal thrilling stories of their discovery. And chemists who had discovered a new element were not infrequently at a loss to find a name for the “newborn.”
It was important to think up a name which would be at least partly indicative of the element’s properties. Such were business names, if you like. They could hardly be called romantic. Examples are hydrogen (the Greek for “producing water’), oxygen (“producing acid”), and phosphorus (“light-bringing’). These names record important properties of the elements.
Some elements were named after the planets of the solar system; such are selenium, and tellurium (from the Greek for Moon and Earth, respectively), uranium, neptunium and plutonium.
Other names are derived from mythology. One of these is tantalum. Tantalus, the favourite son of Zeus, was cruelly punished for an offence against the gods. He had to stand up to his neck in water and above him hung branches with juicy aromatic fruit. But whenever he wanted to quench his thirst the water would flow away from him, and whenever he wanted to appease his hunger and stretched his hand out to pick a fruit, the branches would swing away from him. The sufferings experienced by chemists before their efforts to isolate the element tantalum from its ores were successful could be compared only to those of Zeus’s son. The names titanium and vanadium also stem from Greek mythology.
There are elements which were named in honour of various countries or continents, such as germanium, gallium (from Gaul, the ancient name of France), polonium (Poland), scandium (Scandinavia), francium, ruthenium (Ruthenia is the Latin for Russia), europium and americium.
Other elements were named after cities. These are: hafnium (Copenhagen), lutetium (from Lutetia, the Latin name for Paris), berkelium (in honour of the town of Berkely, U.S.A.), yttrium, terbium, erbium, and ytterbium (after Ytterby, a small town in Sweden where the mineral containing these elements was first discovered).
Finally, some elements were named to immortalize the names of great scientists: curium, fermium, einsteinium, mendelevium, and lawrencium.
The name of only a single artificially produced element, the hundred and second, has not yet been entered in its birth certificate.
There is still some controversy among scientists as to the origin of the names of the elements of antiquity, and nobody knows so far just why, say, sulphur is called sulphur, iron - iron, or tin - tin.
See how many curious things we find in the register of the chemical elements!