Monday, May 7, 2012

What's in a Name?

Man has been discovering metals right from prehistoric times and will continue to complete the far from finished list of trans-uranic metals. All but 22 elements can be considered metals and the names for these various metals are drawn from the vast gamut of human activity.

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.

Amongst these, were the discoverers of scandium, for Scandinavia; rhenium named for the Rhine provinces of Germany; europium, for Europe; and thulium, for Thule, or the Northland. Marie Curie named her second discovery polonium, after her much loved motherland, Poland. There are two metals named after France - francium and gallium (Gallia is the Latin for France). Although gallium is named after France, jealous dissenters at the time of its discovery in 1875, said that it was a cleverly concealed ploy on the part of its discoverer to name it after himself. The discoverer, Lecoq de Boisbaudran's name, 'Le-coq' means 'the Cock', and the Latin for cock is gallus.
The Eiffel Tower, a landmark of Paris,
the city after which
lutetium is named.

Some other metals are named after cities. For example magnesium is named after Magnesia, an ancient city in Asia Minor; hafnium from the Latin name of Copenhagen; holmium, from Holmia, Latin for Stockholm; and lutetium, from the Latin for Paris, Lutetia. Strontium gets its name from Strontian, a small village in Scotland. In 1787, a rare mineral was unearthed there. This mineral contained the 'earth' (oxide) of the element. Soon, the British chemist, Hope, got interested in the mineral, and isolated it in 1792. The village of Ytterby in Sweden has given its name to no less than four elements - yttrium, ytterbium, terbium and erbium. Not a single continent, state, or city has been awarded such an honour.

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
- Pluto.
Still another set of metals is named after mythological figures. The Scandinavian goddess, Vanadis has lent her name to vanadium and the blustering Scandinavian war god, Thor, to thorium. The transition metals tantalum and niobium are usually found in close alliance and so it is fitting that one should be named after King Tantalum of Greek mythology and the other after his daughter, Princess Niobe. (In fact the name of element number 41 was changed from columbium to conform to this pattern). The strong metal, titanium, was named after the Titans, the supermen of Greek mythology. Promethium is named after Prometheus, the daring youth who stole fire from the gods. The poisonous ores of cobalt were once dangerous to mine and therefore cobalt gets its name from the German for evil spirit, Kobald.
Enrico Fermi, the scientist
who inspired the name fermium.

Many newly discovered elements have been named to commemorate great scientists of the past. Fermium reminds us of Enrico Fermi, einsteinium of Albert Einstein, nobelium of Alfred Nobel and curium of the backbreaking labours of Marie and Pierre Curie. Lawrencium is reminiscent of Ernest O. Lawrence.

Other metals like samarium and gadolinium are indirectly named after people. The Russian mine official, Colonel V.E. Samarsky gave his name to the mineral samarite from which samarium was mined and the Finnish chemist Professor Gadolino of Turku University gave his name to gadolinite, from which gadolinium was found.

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.