Tragic Greeks

Tantalum and niobium lie one below the other in Group V of the Periodic Table. They were discovered within a year of each other, in 1802 and 1801 respectively, though for a while there was some confusion as to whether they were one and the same element or indeed whether there was a third distinct element, pelopium. They were named for King Tantalus of Greek mythology and his children Niobe and Pelops. Once the issue of how many of these elements existed was resolved, the names tantalum and niobium were agreed and Pelops lost out on the honour.

This was not the only tragedy to befall Pelops. His wicked father Tantalus was not on good terms with the Gods of Olympus. Pretending to extend the hand of friendship, he invited them to a feast at his palace. As a special ‘treat’, he killed his son Pelops, diced him and served him up in stew. When Zeus realised the trick Tantalus had played, he sent him straight to Hades. Zeus believed in making the punishment fit the crime, and Tantalus was condemned to stand forever in a pool of water he could never reach to quench his thirst, and under a fruit tree whose succulent fruit he could not reach. While I have taken my inspiration from the fruit that tantalised Tantalus, Anders Ekeberg who discovered tantalum took his from the water Tantalus was unable to imbibe, saying he chose the name because of the element’s resistance to corrosion – its inability “when immersed in acid, to absorb any and be saturated”.

Despite her father’s misdeeds, Niobe initially did well in life – she married Amphion, a son of Zeus, and they had seven daughters and seven sons together. Unfortunately she became rather too proud of her success and dared to compare herself to the Titaness Leto, mother of Artemis and Apollo. She suggested that the annual celebrations in honour of Leto should be abandoned as she herself was a far more productive mother. Artemis and Apollo wasted no time in avenging the distress caused to their mother. Artemis shot dead all seven of Niobe’s daughters with her silver arrows, and Apollo shot dead the sons with his golden arrows. Niobe’s grief was so great that even the Gods took pity on her. To put her out of her misery they turned her to a rock on Mount Sypilus where she had fled, but Niobe’s weeping was so powerful that her tears gushed from the rock, and stream down the mountainside to this day.

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