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Elemental names and tales

by Sam Lemonick
March 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 13


When is iron rare and gold abundant?

A photograph of Freddie Mercury.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/We Heart It
Rare elements: Freddie Mercury wasn't in the surname study because (1) he's British, (2) it's a stage name, and (3) he was dead in 2010.

If you live in the US and your last name is “Iron,” you share it with fewer than 300 other Americans, according to the US Census. But while your name might be rare, its eponym isn’t. Iron is the fourth most abundant element in Earth’s crust. Strange as it may sound, elemental abundance and American last-name frequency are inversely correlated, according to a study published in the Annals of Improbable Research Online.

Eric R. and Ell A. Schulman found 12 elements that appear in the US Census Bureau’s surname database, which means at least 100 Americans claim them. Ell, a college student, was thinking of elements as names. Eric, Ell’s father and a physicist by training with a penchant for irreverent science writing, wanted to see if he could plot the census data against something else. He settled on abundance.

The Schulmans found that the more abundant an element is, the less likely it is to be a common last name. “Silver” and “Gold” are the most common elemental surnames but are among the rarest of these elements. To get a reasonable correlation (R2= 28%), the authors did have to throw out radon, which is several orders of magnitude less abundant than any of the others. As the abstract puts it, there is a relationship, “provided radioactive gasses are ignored.” Eric notes that “Radon” is a somewhat common name in Eastern Europe.

Eric hypothesizes that an element’s scarcity often increases its value, which may in turn boost its popularity as a name. That would explain “Gold” and “Silver” and even “Argon,” which is the third most common element in Earth’s atmosphere and the second least popular name on their list.

Like any successful research team, the Schulmans are already thinking about future work. There will be another census next year, and Ell tells Newscripts they plan to redo their analysis once the new data are available.


Tweeting around the table

But what about the periodic table’s other 106 elements? Mark Lorch, a chemist and professor of science communication at the University of Hull, kicked off an element association game on Twitter that traversed all 118. “I’ll start with an element, you reply with a story/factoid that links it to another element and so on . . . No repeats!” Lorch wrote. He was hoping to spread a bit of chemistry knowledge to the world.

He started with mendelevium, whose eponym is being honored this year on the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev publishing his first periodic table. Six days later, Physics World editor Margaret Harris ended the game with gadolinium, which, she noted, is used in radiation shielding in the reactors where elements like livermorium, the previous element mentioned in the Twitter game, are made.

Stock image of a man doing a handstand.
Credit: Shutterstock/Gualtiero Boffi
A handstand: The best way to exhale xenon.

Lorch, who was following along, says he was wondering how anyone would be able to link livermorium to gadolinium, which was the last remaining element. “Margaret Harris saved our bacon,” he tells Newscripts.

Other tweets play off chemical properties, like mercury and zinc both having low melting points because of their shared electronic configurations, or trivia, like plutonium and neon being the two elements named by children.

“What I like best about it is it’s a mix of chemistry, history, etymology, and personal tales,” Lorch says of the completed chain. One of his favorites linked helium to xenon, pointing out that while the former makes your voice higher when inhaled, the latter makes your voice deeper because it’s denser than air. The tweet goes on to explain that because of xenon’s density, a person trying that trick has to stand on their head to get the gas out of their lungs. For safety, please don’t try it.

While he’s not sure the game was a successful piece of chemistry outreach (“Maybe too much of a time sink,” he says), Lorch likes that 117 elemental factoids are ready to find their way into conversations.


Sam Lemonick wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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