How the elements were named

This page is really a book review but it is very relevant to teaching the Nature of Science with particular reference to chemistry. The book, Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf written by Peter Wothers provides concrete evidence as to how many NOS problems have arisen and been addressed in the past and also gives good background information on how theories develop and are later discarded as the prevailing paradigms change.

Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf

All good chemistry teachers should be concerned not only with the facts, skills and concepts underpinning our subject but also its underlying culture. Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf: How The Elements Were Named is written by Peter Wothers and is well worth reading.  

Wothers is a teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge in the UK.  His book not only describes how the names of the elements have been arrived at but also contains a considerable amount of Nature of Science/Theory of Knowledge in the way its is narrated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries chemistry developed from alchemy and the book describes how science itself developed - How can disputes be resolved? Should discoveries be shared freely? How can scientists communicate, collaborate, and form a consensus with each other, despite the geographical borders and language barriers that separate them? The book is well researched and documented. It contains many anecdotes and much material for chemistry (or pub!) quizzes. For example, France,  Germany, Poland, America (and now Japan with nihonium) all have elements named after them but which is the only country to be named after an element? Argentina is the obvious answer but Cyprus is in the chicken and egg situation as no-one is sure whether copper is named after Cyprus or whether Cyprus, which in Roman times had many copper mines, is named after copper.

The book is aimed at the general reader rather than the specialised chemist but a good knowledge of chemistry will make you appreciate it all the more. Lavoisier’s careful weighings of reactants and products, which led to the overthrow of Phlogiston theory, are probably already well known. Perhaps less well known is that because of Lavoisier’s insistence that all acids contained oxygen rather than hydrogen, at least as we now define acids according to Arrhenius and Brønsted-Lowry – but not Lewis or Usanovich, the names of oxygen (acid producer) and hydrogen (water producer) should really be the other way round.

If I have one criticism it is that the book is rather western in nature. After comparing the seven known metals of ancient times with the seven planets in the geocentric view of the universe it tends to focus more on Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the modern concept of an element was defined and where many elements were first discovered. The book mentions that in 2016 the names of the last four unnamed elements were agreed by IUPAC – nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and organesson.  – but there is no mention of the trans-fermium wars (see my earier blog on 104Ku-an anachromism in a gulag). During this period from the late 1960s until the 1990s some elements were known not only by different names but also by different symbols depending upon whether you were based in the former USSR or in the West. 

Classroom (or pub) quiz questions

Here are a five more “pub” quiz questions on the elements. (If you come to my pub in South Wales then to put you in the TOK frame of mind you can have a pint of ‘Paradigm shift’ brewed by The Vale of Glamorgan brewery while you work out the answers.)

1. Which village in Sweden gives its name to four different elements?

Ytterby. The elements are yttrium, erbium, terbium and ytterbium. Ytterby is a a village on the island of Resarö which is part of the Stockholm archipelago. The (now closed) quartz and feldspar mines on Ytterby also contained a black ore called gadolinite from which these rare earth elements were obtained.

2. Mendeleyev left spaces in his first periodic table to account for elements yet to be discovered. However he did include one element in the table that still had not been isolated and whose physical and chemical properties had not been determined – which element was it?

Fluorine. Although hydrofluoric acid and some salts containing fluorine were known, fluorine itself was not isolated until 1886 by Henri Moissan who electrolysed a solution of potassium hydrogen fluoride, KHF2 in anhydrous hydrogen fluoride using inert platinum electrodes.

3. Which country has two elements named after it?

France. The elements are francium and gallium. Francium was named by Marguerite Peret who discovered the alkali metal in 1939. Gallium was discovered some 64 years earlier in 1875 by Paul Émile Lecoq de Baoisbaudran. He named it gallium. He claimed it was in honour of his country (Gallia) although others have claimed he named it after himself as the Latin for the cock is gallus.

4. Who discovered a new element on French soil when his country was actually at war with France?

Humphrey Davy. Davy was invited to France in 1812 by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to receive a medal for his work on isolating alkali metals even though France was at war with Great Britain. While he was there Ampère gave him a sample procured from the ashes of sea weed. Using his travelling laboratory, Davy was able to extract and identify iodine for the first time from the sample.

5. What is Jupiter’s Wolf?

An ore of tungsten. Tungsten is present in the ore scheelite which was earlier known as tungste based on the Swedish for ‘heavy stone’. Another tungsten-containing ore is wolframite, (Fe,Mn)WO4. Wolframite was often found in the presence of tin ores and made the tin brittle when it was extracted. Tin, one of the earliest metals known, had a long association with Jupiter and wolframite was also known as Jupiter’s Wolf as it spoilt the tin (like a wolf). Tungsten has the symbol W due to its association with wolframite and its earlier name of wolfram.

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