Lemmium, and the naming of things Part I

I really did not think I would be writing about Lemmy Kilmister, even if Dr. Anna is as metal as iridium. But alas, the late heavy metal icon has found his way to science news in a very strange way.


A metal as Lemmy Kilmister?

Lemmy was the growly-voiced front man for Motörhead, and was influential beyond the  His appeal to his fans seems to go far beyond his music; to some, he was heavy metal in the flesh. He survived to the ripe old age of 70 despite a rather infamous “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle. His last performance was with Motörhead in Berlin on 11 December, 2015. On 28 December, he died from a highly aggressive cancer which had reportedly been diagnosed only days earlier.

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Lemmy Kilmister (Image credit: Mark Marek)

 


New elements discovered – ‘Lemmium’, perhaps?

The next week, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) announced that four new elements had been added to the periodic table, completing the seventh row. Elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 were discovered using particle accelerators; such superheavy elements exist only briefly as a result of nuclei of lighter elements being collided together at tremendous energies.  Their half-lives are short, and their existence is measured by way of the radiation emitted by their decay.  Since nomenclature falls within IUPAC’s domain, these newly discovered elements were assigned placeholder names which reflect their atomic number.  The right to name them falls to the research team responsible for the discovery of each element.

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The Cold War of names

It’s rather serious business. A side-show to the Cold War was the Transfermium Wars: a dispute over which research teams had been the first to discover elements 104 through 106.  The periodic tables that I used in school listed these elements with two different names as a result — one set was distinctly Russian.  Much as with the Space Race, the superpowers were locked into a race for scientific discoveries in other fields.  Synthesising elements became another battleground, but the divides between East and West made verification of which team had gotten there first problematic.  It wasn’t like with Sputnik, which was just barely visible to the naked eye and broadcast a steady signal to let those below know it was there; nor was it like the Apollo program, which was tracked by observatories around the world, and blasted back a wealth of telemetry for all who would listen, ultimately returning hundreds of kilograms of lunar samples.  Though discovered in the 1960s, the nomenclature of these elements was not settled until 1997 — six years after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

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This particular round of discoveries was resolved far more peaceably. Credit for element and selection of its name was awarded to a Japanese team.  Meanwhile, the Russian and US teams which had squared off against each other during the Transfermium Wars were awarded joint credit as collaborators for the discoveries of elements 115, 117 and 118.

 

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The periodic table.


The proposal

It was amid this announcement by IUPAC that Lemmy Kilmister managed to become rather bizarrely entangled in science news. A petition on Change.org was circulated, and rapidly began to gain signatures proposing that an unnamed “heavy metal element” be named “Lemmium” in his honour.  At the time of this writing, the number of signatures for this petition has eclipsed 105,000.

There’s some immediate problems with this concept. First and most obviously, such a petition has no real binding power over anything — the right to name the elements remains with the teams which discovered them. Second, if any of these elements is actually a metal — and at least some probably are based upon the properties of adjacent elements on the periodic table — they would be superheavy.  This point would probably not be much deterrence to Lemmy’s fans. Ultimately, naming an element after a musician would be breaking with IUPAC’s naming conventions. When elements are named after people, they are named after scientists (e.g. einsteinium, nobelium, rutherfordium, etc).

The man behind the proposal has suggested a solution. Many elements are named after astronomical objects (e.g. uranium, neptunium, plutonium and cerium, while selenium is a reference to the Moon). Therefore Lemmium would be named after a star which has been named “Lemmy”.


An answer leads to another question

At this point, I was a bit perplexed.  I’m something of an astronomy buff, and as such am rather familiar with the naming conventions of stars.  The overwhelming majority of stars detectable within our galaxy do not have proper names — they are either given Bayer designations like Epsilon Eridani (ε Eri) based upon their apparent brightness and which constellation they are found in, or they are given catalogue numbers by the star survey which discovers them (eg Gliese 581).   Those which have proper names tend to derive from Greek, Latin or Arabic, with a few names thrown in as late as the 19th Century (e.g. Barnard’s Star).  Suffice to say, Lemmy was not any that I was familiar with.

 

This tale takes to the stars in Part II…

Posted in Chemistry, Opinion, Science History and tagged , , , , .

Thomas

So, I'm a geographer/cartographer/GIS wonk, kidnapped by archaeologists (resulting in me ending up with degrees in geography and anthropology). My main research interests are cultural adaptation and migration driven by environmental change. But really, I have so many things that I find neat, from palaeoenvironments (this got me dangled head-first off of a bridge with a plankton net by Germans once) to astronomy (this has nearly gotten me hypothermia a few times). I am between degrees right now, and have a government job working in Heritage Resources, making a lot of maps and squinting at a lot of lidar.

Contrary to Dr. Anna's advice, it's rather questionable as to wether I "science safely".

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