What’s in a name? Ununpentium

This week, big news in the chemistry community is that scientists have created a new element- element 115. Because I know nothing about element 115 except that it is neither natural nor practical, to me, the most interesting part of the story is its name.

All elements can be identified by a number – the number of protons in their nucleus – which is why this element can be referred to by the number 115. However, the element also has an official name, dictated by international chemistry naming rules – ununpentium. The “unun” comes from the Latin “unum,” (1) and the “pent” is Greek for 5, so when you squish the roots together, you get 1-1-5. After I found this out, I had to find out why the name is a combination of roots from two different languages… Wikipedia to the rescue: it couldn’t be named “ununquintium,” which would represent all Latin roots because that name is too similar to “ununquadium,” which was element 114’s temporary name before it was renamed “flerovium.” Serious thought went into this decision.

Man, that's a lot of electrons. Image: commons.wikimedia.org
Man, that’s a lot of electrons.
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

And the naming story doesn’t end there, for “ununpentium” is only a temporary name. The first group to create the element (scientists led by Russian S.N. Dmitriev) have the privilege of naming it. They actually first created it in 2004, but the element is just making headlines now because it was just recreated, so maybe they have the name figured out by now. Imagine having 9 years to agonize over the name of an element that will be printed on every periodic table from here on out? How does the man sleep at night with such responsibility on his shoulders?

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