Usually an international team of chemists “baptises” every new chemical discovered, taking suggestions from the researchers involved in the discovery. Even if only a few molecules have been produced, with no major impact outside the field, the new chemical still deserves a name.
Deciding on the name is not always easy, but in most cases of recently discovered elements, the team has opted to honour an important chemist or physicist; or use a relevant place, from continents to a remote village in the north of Scotland.
Elements named after people
- Bohrium – Niels Bohr, Danish physicist
- Curium – Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, one of the most famous science couples
- Einsteinium – Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
- Fermium – Enrico Fermi, Italian physicist
- Gadolinium – named after gadolinite, which is in turn named after Finish geologist Johan Gadolin
- Gallium – technically named after Gallia (Latin for France), but often associated with discoverer Lecoq de Boisbaudran (lecoq is gallus in latin)
- Lawrencium – Ernest Lawrence, American physicist
- Meitnerium – Lise Meitner, Austrian physicist
- Mendelevium – Dmitri Mendeleev, most famous Russian chemist for his development of the periodic table
- Nobelium – Alfred Nobel, Swedish chemist
- Roetgenium – Wilhelm Roentgen, German physicist
- Rutherfordium – Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand-born physicist
- Samarium – Russian mine official Colonel Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets was the first person to have a chemical named after him
- Seaborgium – Glenn Seaborg, American chemist
In addition, some elements can be named after fictional characters, including promethium, named after a Titan in Greek mythology; and thorium, named after Thor, the Norse God of thunder.
Elements named after places
- Americium – America
- Berkelium – University of California, Berkeley
- Californium – California
- Copper – some believe it was named after Cyprus
- Darmstadtium – Darmstady, Germany
- Dubnium – Dubna, Russia
- Erbium, terbium, Ytterbium and Yttrium – Ytterby, Sweden. At a quarry mine near the village, a rare mineral was discovered and named yttria. Upon detailed examinations, four new chemicals were found and all named after this small village in Sweden.
- Europium – Europe
- Francium –France
- Germanium – Germany
- Hafnium – Copenhagen (Hafnia in latin)
- Hassium – Hesse, Germany
- Holmium – Stockholm (Holmia in latin)
- Lutetium – Paris (Lutetia in Latin)
- Magnesium – Magnesia, Greece
- Polonium – Poland
- Rhenium – River Rhine
- Ruthenium – Ruthenia (Eastern Europe)
- Scandium – Scandinavia
- Strontium – Strontian, Scotland
- Thulium – Thule (mythical island, possibly Scandinavia)
Sometimes, our planet is not enough to find a name and some chemicals were named after celestial bodies, such as helium – after helios (greek for sun) – and selenium – after selene (greek for moon).
Naming chemical elements is a somewhat delicate operation, and over the years a few controversies have arisen. Next week, we’ll see how the Cold War in the 60s even reached chemical nomenclature.