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The Meanings Behind 20 Chemical Element Names

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On December 30, 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced the discovery of four new chemical elements—numbers 113, 115, 117, and 118—the first new elements added to the periodic table since 2011. For the time being, they have the fairly clunky Latin and Greek numerical names ununtium (Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus), and ununoctium (Uuo), but, by IUPAC rules, their discovers now get the chance to officially name them.

Online, there’s growing support to name one of these new “heavy metal” elements lemmium in honor of Motörhead frontman Lemmy (who died two days before they were announced), and another octarine after the fictional “color of magic” in the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (Pratchett died in March 2015). Whether these two petitions will come to fruition remains to be seen—the final names are not likely to be announced until later in the spring—but as IUPAC rules demand all new elements be named after either a mythological concept or character, a mineral, a place, a property of the element itself, or a scientist [PDF], it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing lemmium on the walls of chemistry classes any time soon. The stories behind 20 other chemical element names are explained here. 

1. LITHIUM (3)

Despite being the least dense metal, lithium takes its name from the Greek word for “stone,” lithos, because it was discovered in a rock (as opposed to the other alkali metals potassium and sodium, which were discovered in plants and animals). 

2. CARBON (6)

The name carbon comes from the Latin word carbo, meaning “coal” or “charcoal.” A small carbo, incidentally, was a carbunculus, which is the origin of carbuncle

3. NEON (10)

Neon takes its name from neos, the Greek word for “new” (it was “newly” discovered in 1898).

4. PHOSPHORUS (15)

Phosphorus literally means “light-bearer” or “light-bringing,” as the first compound of the element glowed in the dark. A century before it became the name of element 15 in the late 1600s, Phosphorus was an alternative name for the planet Venus, whose appearance in the sky was once believed to strengthen the light and heat of the Sun.

5. VANADIUM (23)

One of the transition metals, pure vanadium is a harsh steel-grey color, but four of its oxidation states produce a rainbow of solutions, colored purple, green, blue, and yellow. Because he was so impressed with how beautiful and varied these solutions were, the Swedish chemist Nils Sefström chose to name vanadium after Vanadís, an alternate name for the Norse goddess of beauty, Freya. Vanadium’s next door neighbor, chromium (24), also produces a variety of colored compounds and so takes its name from the Greek word for “color,” chroma

6. COBALT (27)

Cobalt is often naturally found alongside or in minerals combined with arsenic, and when smelted, cobalt ore can emit noxious arsenic-laden fumes. Long before the poisonous qualities of minerals like these could be explained by science, copper miners in central Europe had no better explanation than to presume these toxic effects were supernatural, and were caused by devious underground goblins called kobolds who lived inside the rock—and it's from the German word kobold that cobalt gets its name. 

7. COPPER (29)

The chemical symbol for copper is Cu, which derives from the metal’s Latin name, cuprum. In turn, cuprum is descended from Kyprios, the Ancient Greek name for the island of Cyprus, which was well known in antiquity for its production of copper. Some other chemical elements named after places include germanium (32), americium (95), berkelium (97), californium (98), and darmstadtium (110), while the elements ruthenium (44), holmium (67), lutetium (71), hafnium (72), and polonium (84) take their names from the Latin names for Russia (Ruthenia), Stockholm (Holmia), Paris (Lutetia), Copenhagen (Hafnia), and Poland (Polonia).

8. GALLIUM (31)

A brittle, silvery-colored metal with a melting point just above room temperature, at 85ºF—meaning that a solid block would quite easily melt in your handgallium was discovered in 1875 by the French chemist Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He chose to name it after Gaul, the Latin name for France, but soon after his discovery was announced, de Boisbaudran was forced to deny allegations that he had actually intended the name gallium to be a self-referencing pun on his own name: Lecoq means “the rooster” in French, while the Latin word for “rooster” is gallus. Despite explicitly writing in a paper in 1877 that France was the true namesake, the rumor dogged de Boisbaudran his whole life and has endured to today. 

9. BROMINE (35)

One of just two elements that are liquid at room temperature (the second being mercury), bromine usually appears as a rich, dark red-brown liquid, similar to blood, that emits fumes and has a characteristically harsh smell. Ultimately, it takes its name from a Greek word, bromos, meaning “stench.”

10. KRYPTON (36)

Because it is colorless, odorless, and so difficult to discover, krypton takes its name from the Greek word for “hidden,” kryptos.

11. STRONTIUM (38)

The only chemical element named after a place in Britain, strontium takes its name from its mineral ore strontianite, which was in turn named after the town of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands near where it was discovered in 1790. 

12. YTTRIUM (39)

In 1787, a Swedish Army officer and part-time chemist named Carl Axel Arrhenius came across an unusually heavy, black-colored rock in the waste heap of a quarry near the village of Ytterby, 15 miles outside Stockholm. He named his discovery ytterbite, and sent a sample of the mineral to his colleague, Professor Johan Gadolin (the namesake of element number 64, gadolinium), at Åbo University in modern-day Finland. Gadolin found that it contained an element that was entirely new to science, which he called yttrium; since then, many more elements have been discovered in Ytterby’s mine, and three more—terbium (65), erbium (68), ytterbium (70)—have been given names honoring the village in which it was discovered. Consequently, the tiny Swedish village of Ytterby remains the most-honored location on the entire periodic table. 

13. ANTIMONY (51)

To etymologists, antimony is probably the most troublesome of all chemical element names, and its true origin remains a mystery. Instead, various unproven theories claim that it might derive from Greek words meaning “floret” (a reference to the spiky appearance of its ore, stibnite), “against solitude” (a reference to the idea that it never appears naturally in its pure form), and even “monk-killer” (as antimony is poisonous, and many early alchemists were monks).

14. XENON (54)

Like xenophobia, xenon takes its name from a Greek word, xenos, meaning “strange” or “foreign.”

15. PRASEODYMIUM (59)

Because of the greenish color of its mineral salts, the lanthanide metal praseodymium takes its name from a Greek word meaning “green,” prasios—which in turn takes its name from the Greek word for a leek, prason. The dymium part is more complicated. In 1842, a new “element” was discovered called didymium, from the Greek for "twin," so named because it was always accompanied with cerium and lanthanum (and possibly because the namer had two pairs of twins of his own). Forty years later, scientists split didymium into two different elements, praseodidymium (green twin) and neodidymium (new twin). The di- was dropped almost instantly, leaving neodymium and praseodymium.

16. SAMARIUM (62)

Several famous names are commemorated on the periodic table, including Albert Einstein (einsteinium, 99), Niels Bohr (bohrium, 107), Enrico Fermi (fermium, 100), Alfred Nobel (nobelium, 102), and Pierre and Marie Curie (curium, 96). The earliest eponymous element, however, was the little-known metal samarium, which indirectly took its name from an equally little-known Russian mining engineer called Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets. In the early 1800s, Samarsky was working as chief clerk of the Russian mining department when he granted a German mineralogist named Gustav Rose access to a collection of samples taken from a mine in the Ural Mountains. Rose discovered a new mineral in one of the samples, which he named samarskite in Samarsky’s honor; decades later, in 1879, de Boisbaudran found that samarskite contained an element that was new to science, which in turn he named samarium

17. DYSPROSIUM (66)

Eleven years after discovering gallium and 7 years after discovering samarium, de Boisbaudran discovered the rare earth element dysprosium in 1886. It took him 30 attempts to isolate a pure sample—and consequently he named it after dysprositos, a Greek word meaning “hard to get at.”

18. TANTALUM (73)

Ten times rarer than gold in the universe, tantalum is a hard, silvery metal known for its resistance to corrosion and its chemical inertness, both of which make it extremely useful in the manufacture of laboratory equipment and medical implants. Although it’s sometimes said to have been named for the “tantalizing” frustration early chemists experienced in trying to obtain a pure sample, it’s tantalum’s unreactiveness that is the real origin of its name: Because it appears unaffected by practically anything it is submerged in or brought into contact with, tantalum is named for Tantalus, a character in Greek mythology who was punished by being forced to stand knee-deep in a pool of water below a fruit tree, both of which drew away from him whenever he reached out to eat or drink (a story which is also the origin of the word tantalize). Incidentally, Tantalus’s daughter Niobe also features on the periodic table as the namesake of element 41, niobium.

19. URANIUM (92)

Uranium was discovered by the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789, who named it honor of the planet Uranus, which had also only recently been discovered. When elements 93 and 94 were discovered in 1940, they were named neptunium and plutonium so as to continue the sequence of planets.

20. MENDELEVIUM (101)

The invention of the periodic table is credited to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, whose organization of the table allowed him not only to predict the existence of elements that had yet to be discovered at the time, but to correct what was generally understood about the properties of some existing elements. Element number 101, mendelevium, is appropriately named in his honor.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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