Archives of Ask A Scientist!

About "Ask A Scientist!"

On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 7 March, 2002 Next Week's Question
The idiosyncratic method of naming elements
How are elements named?

The stories of how the elements got their names are very interesting. Only a handful of elements exist in nature in their pure form (composed completely of atoms of the same kind). These materials were around from mankind's earliest days, and they retain the monikers they were given when everything was named in the prehistoric universe.

Such materials include the metals iron, copper, silver, tin, gold and lead. We know these elements by their Anglo-Saxon names, but their symbols in the periodic table come form their Latin names: ferrum (Fe), Cuprum (Cu), argentum (Ag), staunum (Sn), aurum (Ag), and plumbium (Pb).

Scientists began systematically separating elements from each other in the 1600's and a tradition was started that whoever discovered an element got to name it. Some elements are named after the compound that they came from, or some attribute of it. For example, aluminum (AL) is named after alum, an aluminum oxide compound; and calcium (Ca) is named after calx, the Latin word for lime.

The element phosphorus (P) was the first to be isolated artificially in 1669. Its name comes form the Greek "phosphoros," which means "light bearing," because phosphorus burns lightly in air. This started a long tradition of using Greek words to name elements. Other element names in this category include hydrogen (Greek "hydro" = "water" + "genes" = "forming": water forming), and bromine (Greek "bromos" = "stench" because it really stinks!).

Other elements are named after some aspect of the way in which the element was found. For example, Helium (He) (Greek: "helios" = "the sun") was found when light from the sun was studied during an eclipse in 1868. Dysprosium (Dy) was discovered in 1886 but it wasn't until 1950 that scientists were able to isolate it. It gets its name from the Greek "dysprositos" = "hard to get at"! Technetium (Tc) was the first element to be produced artificially by humans (by combining nuclei of other elements at very high energies) and it gets its name from the Greek "technetos" = "produced artificially".

Still other elements get their names from places. The winner in this department is the little village of Ytterby in Sweden. The elements Yttrium (Y), Erbium (Er), Terbium (Tb), and Ytterbium (Yb), were all isolated from minerals found there! Berkelium (Bk), Dubnium (Db), and Hassium (Hs) were named after Berkeley, CA, Dubna, Russia and the German state of Hessen, respectively, where these man-made elements were created.

Another interesting group of names comes from mythology. Mythological characters that can be found on the periodic table include Tantalus (Tantalum, Ta) and his daughter Niobe (Niobium, Nb), and Promethius (Promethium, Pm). Some of these mythological characters also gave their names to planets—Uranus (Uranium, U), Neptune (Neptunium, Np), and Pluto (Plutonium, Pu)—and asteroids—Pallas (Palladium, Pd) and Ceres (Cerium, Ce).

In recent years, a new trend in naming elements has been to name them after famous scientists. Most of these have been people who made an important discovery that helped us to understand the elements. These include Einsteinium (Es), named after Albert Einstein; Lawrencium (Lr), named after E.O. Lawrence, who invented a machine called a cyclotron that enabled people to make new elements for the first time, and of course Mendelevium (Md), named after Dimtri Mendeleev, who figured out the Periodic Table in the first place!

Are we through naming elements? No! It was only in 1997 that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, proposed names for 104 - 109. These elements were created in laboratories in the United States, Russia, and Germany. Only a few atoms were created and they only existed for a short time. The naming of chemical elements is a matter of national and professional pride, however, and selecting a name these days requires a lot of bickering and bargaining. Elements 110, 111 and 112 have been created, but have yet to be named. You can be sure there will be lots of discussion about their names.