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Charming anecdotes and historical diversions come to life in tales of how the chemical elements were named

Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter's Wolf: How the Elements Were Named

Peter Wothers
Oxford University Press
2020
304 pp.
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Beryllium would taste as sweet by any other name. Indeed, the element was once also known as glucinum or glucinium, derived from the Ancient Greek word for “sweet.” However, clarity is key when the substance in question is also poisonous.

The need to establish clear chemical nomenclature originated with alchemists centuries ago and continues today as an ongoing international mission now led jointly by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. But, as Peter Wothers reveals in his new book, Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf, this sort of work is not always straightforward.

Wothers, a teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge, is interested in the names of elements whose origins are murky. And while a simple web search can provide the etymologies of element names (1), his book provides tales about how those names came to be. Included as well are dozens of renderings of woodcuts depicting old chemical procedures and instruments and other images that enliven his stories.

Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf unfolds as a series of more-or-less separate and chronological stories. Without an overarching narrative, this makes it easy for a reader to easily dip in at any point.

Humans have been using chemicals for thousands of years to produce everything from soap to glass. However, the development of a shared vocabulary around these processes has not always been straightforward. Symbols and code names were sometimes used to keep an artisan’s methods secret. In other cases, independent discoveries and naming traditions led to confusion.

Lavoisier’s chemical revolution of the late 1700s marked a turning point in our understanding of chemical reactions, and a reproduction of one of the tables from his key work, Traité élémentaire de chimie, helpfully translates ancient nomenclature into new names, many of which a modern scientist would recognize. But the periodic table was still rather small in the late 18th century.

New methods accelerated element discovery in the 1800s and drove some competition that makes for interesting stories. Wothers writes, for example, about Humphry Davy, who, in 1807, isolated pure potassium from a solution of lye. Davy’s own report of the discovery was staid, but—as Wothers reveals—his young assistant reported that Davy was bouncing ecstatically around the room after completing the experiment.

Wothers shares how the limits of historical knowledge come into play in element names, revealing, for example, that “[t]he name ‘cobalt’ may have derived from the word ‘cobathia,’ which was what the ancient Greeks called the poisonous smoke of white arsenic oxide formed when arsenic ores are roasted in air.” Meanwhile, bismuth, we learn, was first used as a cosmetic face powder, although sulfur-containing spring water turns the white powder black, thereby outing its surreptitious wearers.

The many names given to a single substance by different discoverers have, at times, constrained later researchers. Davy, for example, originally named one of his discoveries “magnium,” knowing that his preferred name had already been claimed for the metallic form of manganese. We now call his metal magnesium (his original choice).

The book concludes on the question of whether unstable elements should be named at all. (Ultimately, scientists decided that, yes, these new elements—however transient—deserve names too.) The story of the creation and naming has been told recently in another book (2) that would make a perfect reading companion for this lively volume.

References and Notes:
1. https://elements.vanderkrogt.net/index.php
2. K. Chapman, Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Chemistry, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA.