Today, we name the elements. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Last week, a student asked
how oxygen got its name, and I didn't remember.
Next day another student showed up with a paper by
Norwegian scholar Vivi Ringnes, who explains how
all the chemical elements got their names.
Seven metals and seven planets were known in the
ancient world. So we associated metals with
planets. Gold was the color of the sun, silver the
color of moon, rusted iron the color of the red
planet Mars. Mercury still carries the name of its
planet. Tin was Jupiter, copper was Venus. And
Saturn, with its huge orbit, seemed to move
leadenly through the night sky.
Those names also attach to the days of the week.
Monday's the day of the moon. We have Sun-day,
Satur-day, and so on. The French word for Tuesday
is Mardi (or Mars day.) The old Nordic word for an
iron smelter -- Masofen -- is literally a softener
Medieval alchemists added new kinds of names. Since
arsenic strengthened copper, they saw it as male
and used the Greek word for maleness,
arsenikos. Medieval miners found ores
that looked like copper ore but weren't. They
called them devil's copper or kupfernickel. When
they found they could extract a new metal from one
of those ores, they named it nickel, which means
devil. So we shifted away from names of planets and
mythic characters toward function.
Come back to that student's question about oxygen:
Late 18th-century chemistry was evolving at the
hands of scientists like Antoine Lavoisier who
believed we should name elements rationally - - in
terms of what they did.
So when Lavoisier isolated oxygen, he used the
Greek oxy for acid and
gen for generator. He thought all
acids were generated by this new oxygen. The word
hydrogen likewise means water generator. Nitrogen
means the generator of nitre or saltpeter.
But logic falls apart as we learn more chemistry.
Not all acids involve oxygen, and hydrogen forms
far more chemicals than just water. Lavoisier's
names grew increasingly irrational. So we began
naming elements after places: gallium after Gaul,
the old name of France, Scandium for Scandinavia.
Glen Seaborg named Berkelium, Californium, and
Americium after his town, state, and country.
It's to the credit of the scientists who've
identified the 109 elements that none of the
elements yet bear their names. We've granted that
much transcendence to the clay of which we are all
made. But recent elements have posthumously been
named Curium, Einsteinium, Nobelium.
Still these materials are not the fruit of human
intellects. Better to laugh at ourselves as we name
them. We named Niobium after Niobe, daughter of
Tantalus, simply because it resembled the element
tantalum. Better to put ourselves in the background
when we deal in things so far more basic than our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds