28 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Suresh Menon: it’s all in the name

What’s in a name, asks our columnist. Apparently, everything

Suresh Menon
15 Feb 2016 | 09:43 am

As you grow older, I am told, you look around to see what your legacy might be; what the things named after you could be. No one admits to this, of course, because that is infra dig (infra dig is named after the principal of a Latin school of thought who thought he was Greek). A very small percentage of humanity has no such problems. In their case, future generations will be looking instead for ways to forget their legacies. Buildings everywhere are named after them, so are airports, national holidays, sports stadiums, well-known addresses like Gettysburg, street corners, cakes, furniture, terminal diseases, psychological conditions, syndromes, animals, bodies in outer space, satellites and much more.

Then there are artificial elements that bear names such as einsteinium, fermium and so on, further immortalising these immortals. There is no shakespearium or miltonium, or peleium or mcEnroeium, so the list of 1000 names for new elements is short by a few hundred names, it would appear.

Which is why there is, understandably, a tussle over naming the four new elements that have been recently discovered – or invented (after uranium, elements have largely evolved through IVF in the physical world). These elements’ atomic numbers are 113, 115, 117, 118 (114 and 116 have already been named after the laboratory and the chief of another laboratory respectively). Three different countries, each of which claims to have sighted these elements first, have suggestions for names.

Some of these elements are so unstable they decay in a fraction of a second. Before you can say 113, it’s gone, so 
why the hassle? Statues last longer, psychological conditions endure, buildings are remembered. But who will remember japanium?

It was fun before the -ium days came. You had oxygen, which was not named after anybody, or lead or radon or zinc or manganese, each with its own personality. Now they are all destined to end with those three magic letters. Scientists show great imagination in isolating elements, but none at all in naming them. I mean, they may as well have named them oneium, twoium, threeium, fourium down to onehundredandeighteenium. Apparently, there are 173 in all, which means there will be another 55 names to fight over.

Perhaps, like seats on space flights, we could sell the naming rights to those who pay for them. Thus, 123 could be trumpium or googlium – you get the idea, right?

As for me, I take consolation in the fact that but for a clerical error, element number 54 might nave been named after me. It was discovered in 1898, a few years before I was born. Which is perhaps why they called it xenon.

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Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon

is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.