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Great Zeus! Let’s return to ‘element’ary school |
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Great Zeus! Let’s return to ‘element’ary school

| Friday, June 28, 2013 8:57 p.m

A few weeks ago, I explained how five chemical elements came to be named for Greek and Roman gods. Let’s feast again at the periodic table and discover the mythological origins of five more elements.

Tantalum: When Tantalus, a mortal son of Zeus, shared his father’s secrets with ordinary humans, his father punished him by placing him in fresh water up to his chin and dangling luscious fruits above his head. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? But every time Tantalus stooped to slake his thirst, the water drained away. And when he reached for the fruit, it moved upward beyond his grasp. This excruciating torture inspired the English word “tantalize.”

In 1814, the Swedish chemist Anders Eckeberg discovered a new metal that could be placed in strong acid without “drinking” it, that is, reacting with it. So his fellow Swedish chemist Jons Berzelius, remembering the perpetually parched Tantalus, dubbed the new element “tantalum.”

Niobium: At about the same time, the English chemist Charles Hatchett discovered a new metal, right here in the United States. He dubbed it “columbium,” after “Columbia,” a term for the United States. But other scientists claimed that columbian was identical to tantalum and wasn’t new at all.

This dispute was resolved in 1846 when German chemist Heinrich Rose determined that columbium was indeed a new element.

But because it resembled tantalum so closely, Rose dubbed it “niobium” after Tantalus’ weeping daughter, Niobe. American scientists stuck with “columbium” for a while, but “niobium” eventually prevailed.

Selenium: Another mythological daughter also gave her name to an element. Selene, the daughter of Hyperion, was the Greek goddess of the moon. In 1818, the aforementioned Berzelius discovered a new element very similar to tellurium.

Because “tellurium” had been named for Tellus, the Roman goddess of the earth, Berzelius strove for balance by calling its sister element “selenium,” for the goddess of the moon.

Neptunium and Plutonium: In 1940, chemists at the University of California produced two new radioactive elements derived from uranium (which had been named in 1788 for Uranus, the Roman god of the sky).

So, following the order of the planets, they named the newcomers “neptunium” (for Neptune, Roman god of the sea) and “plutonium” (for Pluto, Greek god of the underworld).

Although Pluto is no longer considered a planet, its namesake element abides.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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