64. Gadolinium: Three Wise Men

Like Luke Skywalker, today’s tale takes a farmboy to greatness.

Featured above: Gadolin, Klaproth, Marignac. Like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, but less alliterative, and ironically not accounting for Berzelius.

Show Notes

If you would be so kind, I would greatly appreciate your vote of support in the People’s Choice Podcast Awards. There’s a post that walks you through the process right here.

Sorry To Disappoint: The coyote’s real Latin name is Canis latrans, and Geococcyx is the genus containing his antagonist, G. californianus (the greater roadrunner) and G. velox (the lesser roadrunner).

Geococcyx, incidentally, roughly translates to “ground cuckoo,” and Canis latrans means “howling dog!” Those are honestly some pretty great names, if you ask me.

If you were curious, the coccyx bones at the (literal) tail end of the human spine are so named because they bear a loose resemblance to the cuckoo’s bill.

Genuinely Descriptive: Google has a neat little tool called Ngram Viewer — okay, I say “neat little tool” like it’s not hugely impressive. In seconds, it searches a corpus of two centuries worth of books, comparing terms against each other to show their relative popularity. Anyway, it’ll back me up in my assertion that lanthanide is and always has been more popular than lanthanoid, even though there’s a concerning dip in interest over the past 30 years.

Désolé, L’ami: This fact got cut for time, but our old pal Paul-Emil Lecoq de Boisbaudran was a co-discoverer of gadolinium, and it was partly thanks to his insistence that Marignac chose to name element 64 after gadolinite (and in turn, Gadolin). He was still red-faced over the whole gallium incident. And there I was, maligning him over the controversy yet again. Shame on me!

Gadolinium requires a very narrow set of circumstances to exhibit its magnetic properties, but when the conditions are right, it’s very magnetic. You might remember from the neodymium episode that unpaired electrons cause magnetic behavior. Gadolinium has the maximum number of these, seven.

Twentieth-century physicist Friedrich Hund came up with a very clever analogy to explain how electrons fill their orbitals. Each orbital can accommodate two electrons, but electrons don’t want to double up if they don’t have to. Hund compared it to seats on a bus: Passengers will fill any unoccupied window seats available before they take a seat next to a stranger. Simple, elegant, relatable!

The Patriots Have Been Dead For 100 Years: From La(thanum) to Lu(tetium), as well as Li(thium), I’m often reminded of Metal Gear Solid while writing these scripts.

Episode Script

Around the turn of the 19th century, the chemist Johan Gadolin was a little disturbed by the explosive discovery of elements that was happening. When he suspected he might have found yet another, he shared his misgivings in a letter to a friend:

It is not without great trepidation I dare speak of a new earth, because they are right now becoming far too numerous. … It seems to me rather fatal if each of the new earths should only be found at one site or in one mineral.”1

Bad news for Johan, I’m afraid. His mineral sample came from that wellspring of elemental discoveries, Ytterby, and it contained not only his newly discovered element, but also the element that would one day bear his own name: Gadolinium.2

You’re listening to the Episodic Table of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re learning what’s so great about gadolinium.

But first, we’ll begin the episode in the most thrilling way possible: nitpicking over proper chemical nomenclature.

When discussing the elements between 57 and 71, your humble host has been referring to them as “lanthanides.” Yet he would be remiss not to point out that the friendly functionaries at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry would strongly prefer that we not use that word. The proper term would be lanthanoid. “The ending ‘-ide,'” explains a 2004 white paper, “normally indicates a negative ion, and therefore lanthanoid and actinoid are preferred to lanthanide and actinide.”

Of course, as we’ve seen with aluminium, sulfur, and caesium, our chemical overlords are nothing if not reasonable. The paper continues: “However, lanthanide and actinide are still allowed owing to wide current use.” Quite generous, even if there’s something of a resentful undertone to the whole thing.3

But while you’re here! They would also like you to know that lanthanum is technically not one of the lanthanides — sorry, lanthanoids — because lanthanoid means “like lanthanum,” and lanthanum can’t be like lanthanum if it is lanthanum, but, sigh, they grant that “lanthanum has become included by common usage.”4

All respect to the professionals, but this podcast’s stated position is to favor linguistic descriptivism over prescriptivism whenever possible. That is to say, rather than lamenting the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue, it’s a lot more useful to study how people actually use language.

Whatever you decide to call our current whereabouts on the periodic table, gadolinium does not immediately stand out from the crowd. Smack-dab in the middle of its isolated island at the bottom of the table, this grey metal is not too hard, not too soft; reactive in air, but not explosive; relatively abundant in Earth’s crust, but difficult to separate; and it doesn’t have any highly visible, widespread uses.

But the way this element earned its name is quite interesting. It’s a century-long story starring three of the most prolific chemists in history.5 They’ve all had cameo appearances in prior episodes, so their names will probably sound familiar, but gadolinium gives us a great opportunity to finally shine the spotlight on them. Specifically, today we’ll get to know the Northern European trio of Marignac, Klaproth, and, naturally, Gadolin.

Hailing from Finland, Johan Gadolin was born with a scientific pedigree. His father was a bishop and professor of physics, and his mother’s father was also a physicist who was friends with Carl Linnaeus, the botanist who gave the world binomial nomenclature. (That’s the formalized system of Latin names for life forms, like Carnivorous Slobbious for the coyote, and Velocitus Incalculus for the road runner.)6 7

Johan was no slouch himself, speaking fluent English, French, German, Latin, Russian, and naturally, Finnish. That probably came in handy when, as a young man, he visited universities and mineral mines before returning to his hometown of Abo (aou-boo) to become a chemistry professor.8

While there, he instated a practice that was quite uncommon at the time: He allowed his students to perform experiments, even giving them access to his private laboratory since he deemed the university’s unacceptable.9 Such an advantage helped solidify Scandinavia’s place as a hotbed of chemical research.

Gadolin conducted much of that research himself. He made landmark discoveries about heat and temperature. Along the same lines, he slowly became one of the most vocal converts from the popular phlogiston theory to Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen-based theory of combustion. 

Abo happened to lie just across the Gulf of Bothnia from a sleepy little mining town called Ytterby. That meant he was conveniently close by when Carl Axel Arrhenius wanted assistance with a curious black mineral, which he had named ytterbite in a decision more influential than he could have possibly imagined.10

Gadolin’s highly precise analysis revealed the existence of a “new earth.” This was not gadolinium — it would have been quite gauche for him to name an element after himself. (Looking at you, Lecoq de Boisbaudran.) Instead, he stuck by standard practice, adapting the mineral’s name for this new element: yttrium, the first of the rare earth metals.11 (Oh — just to make sure pedantry suffuses this entire episode from start to finish, I should mention that the category of rare earths comprises all of the lanthanides, plus the elements scandium and yttrium.)12

Martin Heinrich Klaproth was a contemporary of Gadolin’s. He spent his early career as an apothecary, working under Valentin Rose the Elder. (Tangentially, Rose’s grandsons Heinrich and Gustav would later discover samarskite, the mineral source of samarium.)

He later became the University of Berlin’s first professor of chemistry, and a prominent one, at that. Just as Gadolin popularized the oxygen theory of combustion in Scandinavia, so too did Klaproth in Germany. And he can take credit for much of the territory on the periodic table. He had at least a hand in the discoveries of uranium, titanium, zirconium, tellurium, strontium, and chromium, and he defeated Vauquelin in the debate over whether to name element 4 “glucinium” or “beryllium.”13

Since he was something of an authority on the subject of chemicals and the naming thereof, there wasn’t much resistance in the scientific community when he proposed changing the mineral yttrium’s name to gadolinite.

As you well know, there’s no reason to feel bad for little Ytterby. The mineral was only called “yttria” for six years, but that was long enough for its name to sneak onto the periodic table, starting the trend that would eventually lead to four separate elements carrying the village’s name.  

Klaproth died on New Year’s Day, 1817. Four months later, Jean-Charles Galissard (Shar-lay Gay-liss-ard) de Marignac was born in Geneva, Switzerland. Like Klaproth, he spent his early years in a pharmacy, and like Gadolin, he traveled Europe to rub elbows with leading chemists of the day.14

At one point, he was offered a well-paid position as chief chemist at a porcelain factory. (Porcelain was a really big deal at the time, for reasons we’ll get into next time, with terbium, or maybe three episodes later, with erbium, or maybe two episodes after that, with ytterbium. We’ve got options.) He did not accept that position, though. Much like Klaproth and Gadolin, Marignac opted for a life of academia. 

That was certainly a victory for the field of chemistry. Rather than lining the pockets of some factory owner, he spent his life making landmark discoveries and verifying important hypotheses. He was especially skilled at making fine, precise measurements — some of the finest in scientific history up till that point. He carefully recorded the atomic weights of practically every element known at the time, which was foundational for the work that other inorganic chemists would perform in the coming century.

He conducted all that important research in a dark, damp basement laboratory that a colleague described as “a nasty kitchen” that looked more like “an alchemist’s workshop” then a proper chemistry facility. Unlike Gadolin’s laboratory, Marignac’s did not have a steady stream of students flowing through it, for some reason.

At any rate, it’s not terribly surprising that a chemist with such a mind for detail would have a particular hankering for the lanthanides, as difficult as they are to separate from each other. He discovered ytterbium, which was lurking within supposedly pure sample of erbium, and in 1880, he spectroscopically identified another new element. He had confirmed this new element’s presence in several different minerals, but chose gadolinite as the one to provide this element’s name.15

In doing so, he gave the periodic table its first and so far only element with etymological roots in Hebrew. Johan Gadolin’s grandfather Jakob was a farmboy-turned-academic, and for intellectuals of the time, it was all the rage to translate one’s vulgar name into a more learned language. Usually that language was Latin. For instance, the aforementioned Carl Linnaeus was born as Carl von Linné (fonn linn-ih-uh). The farm that Jakob grew up on was called Maunula, which means “great.” Greek, Latin, and Hebrew were all languages favored by scholars of the day, so he spent a little time with each one’s translation of “great” to see how he liked it. He eschewed Magnulin (Latin) and Megalin (Greek), instead choosing the Hebrew word: Gadolin.16 17

He was not Jewish — he actually became a Lutheran minister. He really just liked the sound of it. Thank goodness, because manganese and magnesium cause enough confusion on their own without the existence of magnulinium or megalinium.

Marignac’s naming of element 64 closed the loop on this twisting, intertwining tale of one mineral that gave its name to two very different-sounding elements; the premier chemists of Finland, Germany, and Switzerland; and that inescapable Swedish hamlet.

When stocking your element collection, you should probably avoid the obvious choice this time, because gadolinite turns out to contain not very much gadolinium. If you’d like a mineral sample to represent this element, monazite or bastnasite are better sources.

Sadly, as mentioned earlier, gadolinium does not have any widespread uses. It appears in small amounts in various alloys, to boost their resistance to heat and oxidation. It’s part of the cornucopia of chemicals that make up a modern television screen. But its most critical use is almost certainly as a contrast medium for MRIs.18 19

Under the right conditions, gadolinium is highly magnetic. A Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine works by applying a seriously strong magnetic field to the body, causing all the hydrogen atoms to align in one direction. The magnetic field is released, and the hydrogen atoms “relax,” losing their uniform alignment.20

A special solution of gadolinium injected into the body will latch on to cancerous cells and cause their hydrogen atoms to relax at a different rate. The MRI machine picks up on this difference, which makes the cancerous cells more visible on the final image.

There happens to be a lot of current research happening in the area. Carbon nanotubes infused with gadolinium make a contrast agent forty times more effective than the regular stuff, and gadolinium might even be effective at destroying cancer cells. 

It’s exciting, and undoubtedly valuable for the field of oncology. Even in its current, popular form, the contrast agent is a modern medical miracle. However, if it happens to be how you are acquiring gadolinium, then I hope you get well soon.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel.

My heartfelt thanks to all of you who have nominated The Episodic Table Of Elements for a People’s Choice Podcast Award. The voting period remains open for the month of July. If you enjoy the program, I humbly request that you add your vote to the tally at Podcast Awards dot com.

I’ll include detailed instructions on how to do so, as well as the actual taxonomic names for the coyote and road runner, at episodic table dot com slash G d.

Next time, we’ll satisfy anyone who’s sad we didn’t stop in Sweden this episode with terbium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you of Finland, Finland, Finland, Fin-land has it all You’re so sadly neglected, and often ignored, a poor second to Belgium when going abroad.

Sources

  1. Episodes From The History Of Rare Earth Elements, What Did Johan Gadolin Do? Edited by C. H. Evans, December 6, 2012.
  2. Nature Chemistry, Magically Magnetic Gadolinium. Pekka Pyykkö, July 23, 2015.
  3. Section 6 of this page on the IUPAC website.
  4. IUPAC IR-3, Elements And Groups Of Elements. March-April 2004.
  5. Elementymology And Elements Multidict, Gadolinium. Peter van der Krogt.
  6. Encyclopedia.com, Johan Gadolin. August 4, 2020.
  7. Thanks Ali Fisunoglu, Özge Akyüz, and Furkan Anarat for compiling this comprehensive list of scientific names in Wile E. Coyote cartoons.
  8. Chemistry Views, 165th Anniversary: Death Of Johan Gadolin. August 15, 2017.
  9. Chemistry Explained, Johang Gadolin.
  10. Baltic Eye, Ytterby Elements: Periodic Table History. Michelle McCrackin, May 7, 2017.
  11. MinDat.org, Gadolinite-(Y).
  12. The Hexagon, Yttrium And Johan Gadolin. James L. Marshall and Virginia R. Marshall, Spring 2008.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, Martin Heinrich Klaproth. Last edited January 1, 2020.
  14. Encyclopedia Britannica, Jean-Charles Galissard de Marignac. Last updated April 20, 2020.
  15. Etymonline, Gadolinium.
  16. The Scyptical Chymist, More On Gadolinium. Anne Pichon, July 24, 2015.
  17. Academic Radiology, Sir Johan Gadolin Of Turku: The Grandfather Of Gadolinium. Peter B. Dean and Kirsti I. Dean, August 1996.
  18. Nature Chemistry, Magically Magnetic Gadolinium. Pekka Pyykkö, July 23, 2015.
  19. Radiopaedia, Gadolinium Contrast Agents. Joachim Feger and Usman Bashir, last updated June 2020.
  20. Questions And Answers In MRI, Why Are Most MRI Contrast Agents Based On The Element Gadolinium?

5 Replies to “64. Gadolinium: Three Wise Men”

  1. Terrific podcast. Mr. Appleton’s clear and precise readings are enjoyable to listen to. With one exception. I would like Mr. Appleton to please stop doing those corny accents when he quotes from some text. They are bad accents, like from some cheap cartoon show. A better accent, or no accent, would better allow me to better hear the words he’s quoting. Otherwise, as I say, a fascinating show and great to have it. Best luck on the awards.

  2. Easy to criticise while listening to what is obviously a well researched and entertaining Podcast.
    Keep up the good work T.R.

    1. Preliminary research seems to indicate the answer is yes, in a similarly roundabout sort of way! The element is named after Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, named after the city where it’s located: Livermore, CA. The town, in turn, is named after Robert Livermore, who played a big part in California’s early history. From the perspective of science history, he’s… just some guy. He died over 100 years before his “namesake” element was found, and he’d probably have little interest in it if he could have known. What an odd way to stumble onto the periodic table!

Leave a Reply to Jeffery Mewtamer Cancel reply