We hear all sorts of incredible stories on this podcast, but today we’ll meet the most unbelievable character of all: A friendly bureaucrat.
Featured above: Guitar pickups, which sometimes employ samarium-cobalt magnets.
Before I get into the show notes proper for this episode, I literally just found something pretty neat that I thought was worth sharing! A cartoonist has been writing a comic for each element on the periodic table, available at mezzacotta.net. They’re cute!
We’ll Ignore For A Moment His Attitude Toward The French: In my research, I came across a lovely little quote. It’s admittedly quite obscure, but if there were ever an audience for it, it’s us:
Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles and kindnesses and small obligations, given habitually, are what win and preserve the heart, and secure comfort.”
As quoted in the 1895 Dictionary Of Burning Words Of Brilliant Writers, uttered by none other than our old friend, Humphry Davy.
I’m also aware that I might be overselling how kind Samarsky-Bykhovets was to Gustav Rose, but I have my reasons. First of all, it was surprisingly — and disappointingly — difficult to hunt down a primary source on Gustav and Heinrich Rose’s correspondence. I had to rely instead on a handful of secondary sources, and that meant I couldn’t read the greater context of the letter.
But also, it’s a bet that I’m willing to make, for the reasons I mentioned in the podcast: Rose was paying tribute to Samarsky-Bykhovets several years later. There was no evidence I could find that the two men had any kind of relationship beyond their brief initial interaction, nor could I find anything to be selfishly gained by naming the mineral after him.
It actually wasn’t uncommon for Rose to name minerals after other people. He discovered plenty of them, like perovskite, named after another Russian (this one a mineralogist), and howardite, a kind of meteorite that gets its name from a celebrated astronomer. He was the Oprah of his time. “You get a mineral! You get a mineral! You get a mineral! Every! Body! Gets! A mineral!”
The favor was repaid in 1825, when Armand Levy named an element he discovered “roselite,” after Gustav himself. (Conspicuously not Heinrich, hmmmmm.)
That same year, mineralogist David Brewster named a new mineral Levyne after Levy. He had already received his honorary mineral when H. J. Brooke discovered one, and Jacques-Louis Soret named a mineral Brookite after him. There’s a pretty cool and seemingly infinite branching lineage you could follow like this.
At any rate, I had no qualms paying tribute to the tribute-payer in this episode. And what a wonderful sentiment from Davy, to boot!
Of the Dyson Sphere, Yes: Freeman Dyson, who only just died this February at the age of 96, was always a joy to listen to. Here he is spending a few minutes appreciating samarium-149, perfection in nature, and universal physical constants:
This One Wants To Fly Close To The Sun: As a magnet, sometimes samarium is used in electriccccc motors, perhaps most notably in the construction of Paul MacCready’s Solar Challenger. That was the first long-distance solar powered airplane, super-lightweight, and it didn’t even have batteries to store energy. Samarium was used in the motor that drove the propellers. In 1981, it flew nonstop from France to England. Good job, samarium!
What A Super Position: Samarium is good at little jobs, too. Very little! Samarium hexaboride is a material that might prove useful in quantum computing. You can read the details in this article, but its’ a little heady. Quantum computing is very strange, even stranger than quantum phenomenon are i general! Way to go, samarium!
More Good Deeds: Samarium is also used in cancer treatments. Samarium lexidronam is radioactive, and when it’s injected into a patient, it seeks out bones. Once there, it emits beta particles (once again, simply electrons) (or sometimes positrons) (that’s it though, promise) and the beta particle kills nearby cells, reducing the amount of pain the patient feels. That’s pretty noble work! Bravo, samarium!
And Drop-Offs? Guitar pickups, shown at the top of this post and mentioned in the episode, are impressively simple. They create a magnetic field that is affected by the vibrations of the electric guitar’s strings, resulting in that distinctly electric tone. The exact construction of the pickups affect that tone in subtle ways. Some people do prefer the sound of samarium-cobalt, but most of the time they’re made of aluminum-nickel-cobalt or iron.
Anyway, like I said in the episode — that’s all for samarium, and we’ll pick up there next week. (sorry, i’m sorry)
Only sixteen people in history have enjoyed the honor and the privilege of lending their names to chemical elements — seventeen, if you count gallium, although Lecoq de Boisbaudran would be horrified. Actually, keep him in mind, as he factors into the story of samarium, too.
Regardless, it’s a highly exclusive club. Its members include some of the brightest minds in the history of science, from Einstein to Copernicus to Mendeleev himself.
Some of them are a little more obscure, like Glenn Seaborg, and Alfred Nobel was probably recognized for his philanthropic contributions to society rather than his innovations in explosives. Vassili Samarsky-Bykhovets was not any kind of scientist, famous or obscure, nor some kind of patron who funded great voyages of discovery.
In fact, I don’t mean to be cruel, but he just wasn’t a particularly notable fellow at all, even when he was alive. Yet not only did his name wind up on the periodic table, but his name was the very first to be borrowed for the name of a chemical element. So how did all this happen? Turns out an act of kindness, and some professional embarrassment, can go a very long way.
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 stumbling upon samarium.
Gustav and Heinrich Rose were a pair of brothers who lived in 19th-century Prussia, and they came from a very accomplished family. Their ancestors and their descendants were prominent experts in their chosen professions, and these two were no different, being luminaries of mineralogy and chemistry.
Gustav spent much of his time traveling across the Russian empire, studying and cataloging samples of newly discovered minerals. The chief of the Russian Mining Engineering Corps brought one such sample to Rose’s attention — a black and lustrous mineral that was kind of similar ytterbite. Rose determined that there were high amounts of uranium and tantalum in this mineral, so the name seemed self-evident: uranotantalum.1 2
Other scientists were still interested in the mineral, because they kept cracking it open to discover new elements in tiny quantities — elements they gave names like dianium, ilmenium, and pelopium.
It was actually Gustav’s brother, Heinrich, who reigned in this spree of supposed discovery several years later. He proved that these newly claimed elements were actually compounds of previously discovered materials, and he gave the name “niobium” to element 41. In the course of all that work, he also showed that there was no tantalum in the uranotantalum that his own brother had described.
In a series of letters, Heinrich explained to Gustav that the mineral he had discovered could probably use a new, more accurate name. Gustav agreed, remembering the name of that helpful chief of the Russian Mining Engineering Corps. He wrote back,
I propose changing the name of ‘uranotantalum’ to ‘samarskite,’ in honor of Colonel Samarsky, by whose grace I was able to make all of the above observations on this mineral.”3
This was several years after the fact, so Colonel Samarsky must have really left quite a mark upon ol’ Gus. It’s not like he had anything more to gain by flattering this mid-level bureaucrat whom he hadn’t seen in years.4
Sometimes, lending a helping hand just pays off in unexpected ways.
But hold up, wait a minute — that’s just the rock. It contains uranium, and niobium, and a handful of other known elements. Samarskite was a unique mineral, but no one had actually found any new elements lurking within.
That is, not until a few decades later. By 1879, our old friend Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran was an accomplished chemist. He had discovered gallium only four years earlier — a discovery that was rather scandalous, as we learned in that episode.
In case you don’t recall, his colleagues suspected that he might have indirectly named element 31 after himself. In Latin, “gallus” means “rooster,” and “le coq” is the French word for the same thing.
Whether he actually had meant to sneak his name into scientific nomenclature or not, de Boisbaudran always acted horrified whenever the suggestion came up. To his dying day, he insisted that he had named the element after the Latin word for France, Gallia.
Whatever his original intentions may have been, he never wanted to invite such accusations of impropriety again. So in 1879, when he did altually discover a real, new, honest-to-goodness new element within samarskite, he wasn’t going to take any chances. The right and responsibility to name this new element fell to him, and he was going to make the most conservative decision possible. By taking the name from the mineral in which he had discovered it, no one could possibly accuse him of any kind of chicanery.
Thus, from samarskite, the element became known as samarium, and an unrenowned mining official’s name became an enduring feature of the catalog of chemical elements.
To some, this might appear more than just amusingly coincidental, but actually an injustice. So many scientists who contributed so much to chemistry and physics are not remembered in this way — even though they might have come so close.
Klaprothium, lewisium, mosandrum, moseleyum, berzelium, and davyum are just a few of the names that were once proposed for various chemical discoveries that never quite made the cut. By this point in the series, you can probably guess who those names are supposed to honor, too, and would agree that they’re titans in the field.5
It would certainly be appropriate for these names, and many others, to decorate the periodic table — and it’s not entirely out of the question yet! Element 112 was named after Nicolaus Copernicus in 2010, half a millennium after he performed his landmark astronomical research. New elements are increasingly elusive and difficult to synthesize, but it’s not unfathomable that a team of researchers could uncover elements beyond 118 any day now, and perhaps they will be named after these historical figures.
But I think it’s pretty wonderful that Vassili Samarsky-Bykhovets takes a place among this constellation of bright scientific stars. In the small collection of fundamental pieces of matter, we pay homage not only to individual scientists, but various countries and cities, colors of the rainbow, planets in the solar system, and gods from ancient mythology. But here, in the table’s sixty-second space, we pay tribute to someone who had more in common with everyone else on Earth: Just a man who had a simple job, who performed it well, who just treated a fellow human being with a little basic kindness.
If we have room on the roll call of atoms to memorialize all those other things, then I, for one, am glad that we found room for that, too.
You will not need to make too much room on your element shelf, because of the many ways to add samarium to your collection, most of them don’t take up very much room.
Samarskite would make a nice display piece, considering today’s story. Also, it’s one of only two elements named for a person that occurs naturally in nature. Gadolinium is the other one — we’ll get there in two episodes — but all the others are synthesized in the lab, and don’t exist longer than a few months at most.
You may remember from two episodes ago that most magnets used to be made of samarium and cobalt.6 Those magnets aren’t completely obsolete today, because they’re superior to neodymium magnets in one respect: they have a much higher Curie point.
We’ve seen how magnetism is a strange phenomenon that only manifests when conditions are just right for a whole bunch of atoms to line up all nice and orderly. In some magnets, a material like samarium forces cobalt atoms to get in line with its crystal structure.
Temperature is an important component of this fragile arrangement. A material’s temperature is really just a measurement of how much its constituent atoms are vibrating.
If a magnet gets hot enough, there comes a point where the minuscule magnets that make it up can’t stay coordinated any longer. They just become too excited to continue pointing in the same direction, and the material loses its ferromagnetic properties. That point is called the Curie point, since it was discovered by Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre.
Neodymium magnets are superior to samarium-cobalt magnets in pretty much every respect except this one. Neodymium magnets fail at temperatures around 180 degrees Celsius, while the samarium kind can keep working at temperatures twice as hot.
That’s the kind of thing you care about if you spend your time running into burning buildings. At least one company has developed gloves that attach to a firefighter’s protective jacket using samarium-cobalt magnets.
Some guitar pickups use samarium-cobalt magnets, too, but not everyone likes the sound. If you have musician friends, they might be willing to part with their own samples of samarium for a low price.
But even if they’re not, samarium shouldn’t be too difficult to find. It’s pretty cheap, because it’s an abundant byproduct of europium processing and refining. Coincidentally, europium is element number 63, so we’ll stop here for now and pick up there next episode.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To hear Freeman Dyson wax poetic about samarium-149, visit episodic table dot com slash S m.
Until next time, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that little acts of kindness are usually not repaid in such a grand fashion, but they’re still worth doing anyway.
- The Periodic Table: A Field Guide To The Elements, this page. Paul Parsons and Gail Dixon, 2013.
- Nature Chemistry, Salute To Samarium. Stanislav Strekopytov, July 21, 2016.
- Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Samarium. Peter van der Krogt.
- The Royal Society Of Chemistry Periodic Table, Samarium.
- Elementymology and Elements Multidict, Names That Did Not Make It.
- Minor Metals Trade Association, Samarium.