Flash and bang

The flammable properties of hydrogen gas are well known to anyone who has been to a chemistry demonstration lecture and seen a hydrogen balloon being exploded. But this property of hydrogen does not match up to its name which is derived from the Greek for ‘water former’, water being the product when it is burned. There is one language that reflects the flammable nature of hydrogen in its name and that is Danish. Hans Christian Ørsted, discoverer of aluminium, coined over 2000 new Danish words in the first part of the nineteenth century, many of them new scientific words. He rooted them in his own language often replacing German-derived words, and chose them to promote scientific understanding by the layperson. For hydrogen he chose ‘Brint’, from ‘at braende’, to burn, and for oxygen (‘acid former’) he chose ‘Ilt’, from ‘Ild’ meaning fire.

Burning hydrogen balloon, ‘(Periodic) Table Talk’, Peter Wothers, March 2019

School students familiar with flame tests may have encountered the green flame of barium salts. It is this property that makes barium salts, usually barium nitrate, traditionally useful for fireworks. However, there is concern over the release of toxic barium into the environment, and is a particular hazard for those in the army who use barium-based flares. Recent research suggests it may be possible to replace barium compounds with boron compounds.1

But how would we be able to make these flashes and bangs if it hadn’t been for the mythical Greek Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans? His punishment was to have his liver torn out daily by a vulture. Discovered at the time the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, promethium’s name was suggested by Grace Mary Coryell, the wife of one of the discoverers. The reason given was that ‘This name not only symbolizes the dramatic way in which the element may be produced in quantity as a result of man’s harnessing of the energy of nuclear fission, but also warns man of the impending danger of punishment by the vulture of war.2 Promethium is represented here by a Greek meander pattern.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2011.222
  2. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/cen-v026n028.p2052

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