Why is a new element named after a suburb of San Francisco?

On Saturday the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry proposed the names of two new elements. Currently element number 114 and element number 116 do not have official names in the periodic table of elements. The elements were previously known as ununquadium and ununhexium. Those long, unpronounceable words were the temporarily used systematic element names. The names are generated from their atomic number, but like most things in physics, the procedure is incomprehensible to us laypeople. If you’re curious, the guidelines are further explained in Principles of Chemical Nomenclature.

Why is there such confusion over what to call these elements? There wasn’t always such brouhaha over what to name elements. The common elements, like carbon, helium, and iron, were named for common things. Carbon referred to coal or charcoal; helium comes from the Greek word helios meaning sun; iron dates back to the Proto-Germanic meaning “heavy metal.” Unlike common elements, these newer elements were synthesized in a lab; they are not observed in nature. They are very unstable and quickly dissolve into other elements. (What exactly makes an element? It is a pure chemical substance that is distinguished by the number of protons in its nucleus. Hydrogen has 1 proton; helium has 2; and so on.)

Since these new elements were invented, so to speak, their names cannot rely on a clear lineage of vocabulary. Rather, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry must choose names for them.

For example, the IUPAC honored Pierre and Marie Curie by naming atomic element 96 curium in 1948. And just last month three new elements were christened: Darmstadtium, Roentgenium, Copernicium. Roentgenium and Copernicium were named after influential scientists, and Darmstadtium honors the town in Germany where the element was first discovered.

The proposed names for element number 114 and element number 116 are both based on the laboratories that were essential in their creation. Livermorium was first observed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, outside of San Francisco, and flerovium was created in Russia’s Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions. The Flerov Lab was named for a Russian physicist, Georgiy N. Flerov who discovered the spontaneous fission of uranium. The Livermore Labs, on the other hand, were named for the town they are located in: Livermore, California. Livermore received its name from a rancher, Robert Livermore, who immigrated to California from England in 1816. He wasn’t a physicist, but his name is now famous throughout the science community because of the lab that bears it.

Why aren’t these names official yet? The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has opened the discussion to the public for feedback. According to a press release, “The Provisional Recommendations will be made available in the very near future for Public Comment for five months and will also be sent to expert referees.”

What do you think about the proposed names? What other names should be considered?

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