Patriotic discoverers have turned to their homelands, or cities for inspiration, others have drawn from mythological figures. Great scientists are honoured by having metals named after them. Some discoverers, apparently fascinated by the vast stillness of space, have named their discoveries after heavenly bodies.
|The Rhine provinces of Germany,|
and the river after which
rhenium was named.
The salts that metals form are of various colours. In fact, these colours have been the basis for the naming of many metals. Chromium forms varicoloured salts, and gets its name from chroma, or colour. Iridium, forming rainbow-coloured salts gets its name from iris, the rainbow. Praseodymium characteristically forms green salts and gets its name from prasios didymos, or green twin. Rhodium's salts in solution look rosy and so it is named rhodon, or rose-coloured. Metals can be identified by the colour they impart to flame. For example potassium gives a subtle lilac flame, sodium gives fiery golden-yellow, and copper a soft apple green. Rubidium imparts a red colour to the flame and so is named from the Latin for red, rubidus. Similarly, caesium makes the flame sky-blue and is named after the sky-blue colour, caesius. Thallium has a spring green spectral line and was fittingly discovered in spring. It was named for the budding twig, thallos. Indigo, India's famed dark blue dye, gave its name to indium, whose spectrum consists of a bright blue line.
|The rape of Proserpine (or Persephone)|
as sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622),
immortalises the Greek god of the underworld
|Enrico Fermi, the scientist|
who inspired the name fermium.
There are some elements that are named after heavenly bodies. They can be said to be named after mythological figures which most heavenly bodies are named after. For example, palladium was named after the asteroid Pallas, cerium after the planetoid Ceres. Uranium (number 92) was named after the planet Uranus. Element number 93 was named neptunium, after the planet Neptune, the planet beyond Uranus, and number 94, plutonium after Pluto, beyond Neptune.
Metals that are inactive and occur in their native forms have been known since prehistoric times. Their names have passed down the ages unchanged (lead and tin are Old English words), or with minor variations and corruptions - as iron for iren, silver for seolfor. Geolo is the common etymological root for gold and yellow. Other newly discovered metals took on the names of older ones. Molybdenum was discovered from what was thought to be lead ore and so its name is derived from molybdos or lead. Similarly it was thought that a reddish ore would yield copper instead it yielded nickel. Nickel is the contraction of kupfernickel, or 'false copper'. Platinium because it so resembles silver was named after platina, or 'little silver'.
The names of elements through 118 have recently been accepted by nuclear scientists and certified by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. This completes the last row of the periodic table.
Most of the newer super-heavy elements are named after famous scientists. Rutherfordium is named after Ernest R. Rutherford, the New Zealand physicist; it was formerly called kurchatovium by the Russians, after Vasilevich Kurchatov, the late Head of Soviet Nuclear Research. Seaborgium is named after Glenn T. Seaborg, American nuclear chemist and Nobel Prize winner. Bohrium is named after Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, and meitnerium after Lise Meitner, the Austrian physicist. Roentgenium is named after the German discoverer of X-rays, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, and copernicium after astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Oganesson is named for professor Yuri Oganessian, a pioneer in the discovery of superheavy elements.
Some are named after the laboratories where they were synthesized. Livermorium is named after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, and flerovium after the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions. By extension, flerovium is named after Georgiy N. Flerov, discoverer of the spontaneous fission of uranium. Darmstadtium is named after the Institute for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. Hassium was synthesized in the same institute, and is named after the German state of Hesse (where the city of Darmstadt is located), from the Latin Hassias.
New elements continue to be named after places. Moscovium and dubnium, both discovered at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, are named after the city and province of their discovery. Researchers at three laboratories in Tennessee, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville worked together to discover tennessine, which is named after the state. Japan gives its name to nihonium, and it is the first element to be discovered in an Asian country. "Nihon" means "Land of Rising Sun".
© 1985-2016, Sualeh Fatehi. All rights reserved.
This article was written in 1985, and published in Science Today, India's leading popular science magazine, in July 1985.