Celebrity elements

A recent cluster of celebrity deaths has tugged at the heart strings of music and movie fans everywhere with the demise of the musicians known on stage as Lemmy and David Bowie, actor Alan Rickman and TV and radio presenter Terry Wogan. Of course, the demise of famous heroes always saddens and perhaps provides a reflection on our own perspective on mortality and a focus on loss and bereavement that we could not hope to process on the grander scale of the 150,000 or so other people who die across the globe every single day.

When the news emerged at the beginning of January that four super-heavy chemical elements discovered in recent years by scientists in Japan, Russia and the US had finally been verified and added to the Periodic Table it was almost inevitable that there would be calls to name at least one of those elements after a celebrity who had recently passed away. Lemmy, real name Ian Fraser Kilmister, was the driving force between one of the most famous and infamous bands of the heavy metal music genre. He had died just days after his seventieth birthday near the close of 2015 and days before the announcement regarding the superheavy elements. It was almost inevitable that someone would start an online petition to persuade the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) that one of those new elements - element 115, the heaviest of those heavy metals, provisionally tagged ununpentium, Uup, and known colloquially among chemists as eka-bismuth, be named in the rock star's honor, Lemmium.

The petition was started by John Wright of York and at the time of writing had 153,177 signatories from around the world. Now, it's a fine idea, one might think. But, Lemmy himself always baulked at the description of his music as "heavy metal", he insisted that Motörhead was a "rock and roll band" nothing more and nothing less, it just happened to be one of its louder proponents. Moreover, the media interest in these four new elements was immense, almost on a par with astronomical announcements of a newly sighted supernova or a so-called alignment of the planets in the night sky or even of the discovery in some remote part of the world of a "previously unknown to science" small, cute and fluffy mammal. Chemistry was having its day, for once, its 15 minutes of fame not linked to a factory explosion, rivers being polluted or the total and apocalyptic destruction of the environment, for which it is usually to blame.

I, as a lowly chemist who has spent the last quarter of a century writing about substances, compounds and stuff, was pleased to see the great hurrah the new elements got from the far reaches of the lay public and the media. The call to name 118 Lemmium was amusing. Although as I wrote on my personal blog at the time, the IUPAC rules, albeit their fluxional rules which do not seem to be set in any kind of stone, probably would not allow this nomenclature, sadly. In fact, the discoverers of any new element themselves do not even get to make the final decision let alone more than 150,000 petitioners.

There were mumblings from one section of the chemical community that the petition had trivialized a great discovery. But, I do wonder whether it brought more attention to the new elements and that the interest lasted much longer (we're still talking about them now, after all) than it would have otherwise. Anyway, it's not so long ago that that same component of the chemical community was parading a celebrity in a mauveine-dyed dress as a publicity effort to celebrate WH Perkin and organic chemistry ;-)

Lemmy would have laughed at lemmium, bowium would not have been the Buddhist thing to do, rickmanium sounds too cumbersome and woganium is far too "Game of Thrones" to ever be an appropriate name for a chemical element named after old Terry. But, let's also spare a thought for anyone who has attempted to learn and sing that classic Tom Lehrer song The Elements and maintain its operetta style; I doubt it would work well as a hard rocker in the style of The Ace of Spades. That said, I'm sure "thorium and thulium and thallium" would have tripped off Lemmy or Bowie's tongue just as easily as they did from Lehrer's. I do wonder yet whether those people up at Harvard will hear of any others that might have been discarvard…

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the bestselling science book "Deceived Wisdom".