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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) chemical element number 31, a soft, silver-blue metal

IUPAC periodic table of the elements


So a lot of very big things have happened this week. For one, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Secondly, the shelves on the HH bookcase were starting to sag a bit in the middle, so they were rotated. And thirdly, the four new chemical elements that were discovered at the start of the year were finally given their names.

One of those stories is of much higher import than the others, of course, but don’t worry—those shelves will be fine. As for those chemical elements, well, the names chosen were nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganasson. Each has a story attached to it: the first three honour their places of discovery, Japan, Moscow and Tennessee respectively, while the last honours Russian-Armenian physicist Yuri Oganessian.

Of course Professor Oganessian isn’t the only eponymous honouree on the periodic table: elements like einsteinium, curium, bohrium and seaborgium honour some of the most famous names in science. Nor are nihonium, moscovium and tennessine the only geographical namesakes: America can also boast berkelium and californium as well as americium, while the UK has strontium, which takes its name via the mineral strontianite, from the village of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands. And then there’s gallium, element number 31, which uniquely manages to honour both its place of discovery and—if the rumours are trumours—its discoverer.

The father of the periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev (who has the element mendelevium named after him), predicted the existence of gallium in 1871, but it wasn’t until four years later the snappily-named French chemist Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran obtained a sample of it from the mineral sphalerite. The metal de Boisbaudran discovered was bright silver and brittle, and melted just above room temperature. He called it gallium, from Gallia, the Latin name for the Roman territory of Gaul, corresponding to modern-day France. But it’s possible he had other ideas in mind.

One of de Boisbaudran’s many, many names, Lecoq, means “the rooster” in French, while the Latin word for “rooster” is gallus. Had de Boisbaudran wryly named gallium after himself? Some fellow scientists at the time accused him of such, but he insisted that the connection was purely coincidental. Even if it was, it’s certainly a very convenient one and makes de Boisbaudran an interesting footnote to the dozens of famous names honoured on the periodic table.

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