William Drenttel | Essays

Uut, Uup and Away

Uut is the periodic symbol for Ununtrium, element no. 113, while Uup is the symbol for Ununpentium, element no. 115. Their discovery was jointly announced a few days ago by the Institute of Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

I got thinking about how we name companies and products. What happens when we discover new elements, especially ones on the outer fringes of the periodic table? Where did Uut and Uup come from?

In a cyclotron particle accelerator, researchers fired an isotope of calcium at a target of americium. The new element 115 was created (for only a fraction of a second) when the nuclei of the calcium and americium fused. It immediately decayed into element 113, this time lasting over a second. These superheavy elements do not exist naturally on earth; they may be generated by supernova explosions in stars, or by fusions during the dawn of the universe. Yet, how they come to be born may ultimately establish a unified theory of the physical forces governing matter.

According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, elements are provisionally designated in terms expressing their atomic numbers in Latin. For example, “ununnilium” (one-one-zero for 110) or “unununium” (one-one-one for 111). So “ununtrium” is Latin for one-one-three, and “ununpentium” for one-one-five. Once the results have been confirmed by other scientists, someone gets to pick a real name.

This provisional designation is important because such discoveries are difficult to confirm. In 1999, California and Oregon University researchers bombarded a lead target with a beam of krypton ions. They reported detecting three atoms of element 118, the heaviest element ever detected. But two years ago, these claims were retracted after a scientist was found to have fabricated data.

In short, here’s the procedure to name new elements: “After the discovery of a new element is confirmed by a joint IUPAC-IUPAP (International Union of Pure and Applied Physics) Working Group, the discoverers are invited to propose a name and a symbol to the IUPAC Inorganic Chemistry Division. Elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property, or a scientist. After examination and acceptance by the Inorganic Chemistry Division, the proposal follows the accepted IUPAC procedure for recommendations, and is then submitted to the Council of IUPAC for approval.”

Maybe we can learn something from this rational process. There are clearly too many names in the world, especially for products with unsubstantiated claims and unproven track records. (Not to mention twentieth-century quackery: Enron and Parmalat? Enough said.) Imagine if all new products were simply designated by number (Latin would be fine) until they proved their worth? Every start-up would simply be a number until it turned a profit. Names would then be granted upon certification by the International Union of Pure Honesty and Applied Human Needs. We could limit names to places, people, planets, mythological concepts, unusual font families.

Oh, that our cereal aisle had brands named Uuu, Uub, Uut, Uuq, Uup, Uuh, Uus and Uuo.

Posted in: Science , Technology

Comments [5]

No one has written as poetically about the periodic table as Oliver Sacks. From Uncle Tungsten:

I got a sudden overwhelming sense of how startling the periodic table must have seemed to those who first saw it -- chemists profoundly familiar with seven or eight chemical families, but who had never realized the basis of these families...nor how all of them might be brought together into a single overarching scheme. I wondered if they had reacted as I did to this first revelation: "Of course! How obvious! Whay didn't I think of it myself?"...To have perceived an overall organization, a superarching principle united and relating all the elements, had a quality of the miraculous, of genius. And this gave me, for the first time, a sense of the transcendent power of the human mind, and the fact that it might be equipped to discover or decipher the deepest secrets of nature, to read the mind of God.

What's remarkable is that what Sacks is talking about is essentially a piece of information design, nothing more and nothing less. If only every design solution could provide within it the means to "read the mind of God."
Michael Bierut

Oliver Sacks on the discovery of these two new elements, sent to me by Gunnar Swanson:

"We search for the island of stability because, like Mount Everest, it is there. But, as with Everest, there is profound emotion, too, infusing the scientific search to test a hypothesis. The quest for the magic island shows us that science is far from being coldness and calculation, as many people imagine, but is shot through with passion, longing and romance."

Oliver Sacks. "Greetings From the Island of Stability"
The New York Times, Sunday Op-Ed Piece, February 8, 2004

William Drenttel

The name Ununtrium is used as a placeholder, such as in scientific articles
about the search for Element 113; it is a Latinate way of saying
"one-one-three-ium" ("ium" being a standard ending for element names). Such
transuranic elements are always artificially produced, and usually end up
being named for a scientist. See Element naming controversy, systematic
element name.

Element naming controversy

It's alienating, but these vacancies seem fitting for the whole disappointing project of transuranic elements. (Hard science notwithstanding, how exciting are atoms that have no interesting properties, and don't even do us the service of hanging around for a full second?) I wonder if assigning a personable and evocative name to something so fleeting would just heighten the disappointment, like discovering that the charmingly named town you've seen advertised on the last few highway signs has yet to be built.
Jonathan Hoefler

Oh, that our cereal aisle had brands named Uuu, Uub, Uut, Uuq, Uup, Uuh, Uus and Uuo.

Do you really want to see commercials saying "Uuq is better than Uup"?

(For the extremely young, Quaker introduced two cereals in the 1970s with an ad campaign that pretended there was a cut-throat rivalry between the brands, and used the slogans "Quake is better than Quisp" and "Quisp is better than Quake". Customers decided neither one of them was as good as corn flakes.)
Rev. Bob

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