70. Ytterbium: White Gold

When Johann Bottger failed to turn lead into gold, porcelain made a pretty good consolation prize.

Featured above: A selection from Lei Xue’s Drinking Tea series of sculptures.

Show Notes

Can I Get Two Maybe Even Three Of These: Not to be confused with Alderaan (RIP), Aldebaran is a star in the constellation Taurus — one of the brighter stars in the night sky, actually. It’s been known since antiquity, and its name comes from the Arabic “al Dabaran,” meaning “the follower,” since it follows the Pleiades around the night sky.

Drifting And Floating And Fading Away: Ytterbium is a strange one. Being a metal, it exhibits reasonable conductivity at standard temperature and pressure. Crank the pressure to 16,000 atmospheres, though, and it turns into a semiconductor. At 39,000 atmospheres, its conductivity falls by an order of magnitude — then it once again becomes highly conductive at 40,000 atmospheres.

This sounds like a mere curiosity, but it turns out this makes a pretty good way to verify the yield of an atomic bomb.

Episode Script

Today’s element was discovered in 1878 by recurring character Jean-Charles Galissard de Marignac, but it wasn’t isolated until 29 years later. Other recurring character Carl Auer von Welsbach accomplished that feat and named the element aldebaranium, after a star named Aldebaran.1 2

However, Georges Urbain — a character who is somehow only now debuting on this show — also succeeded in isolating the element at about the same time, and he named the element neoytterbium. Urbain also happened to sit on the Commission on Atomic Mass, which determined the official names for the elements at the time, so that’s why today’s element has us traveling once more to the hinterlands of Sweden rather than ad astra per chemica.3

If it’s any consolation, we’ll have several opportunities to visit the stars over the course of the remaining 48 episodes, but this is the last time we’ll visit the little “Outer Village” of Ytterby.

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 getting fired up over ytterbium.

This is the fourteenth lanthanide, so by now you’re well aware that these elements travel in herds due to their chemical similarity to each other. That explains why so many of them were discovered in one place, but why was that one place the rinkydink town of Ytterby?4

Part of the reason is because of one shady teenaged magician who was too clever for his own good.

Said charlatan was Johann Friedrich Bottger, born in Germany at the end of the 17th century. He became an apothecary’s apprentice at a young age, and he was both hardworking and a quick study. He was also quite deft, and capably performed a routine that convinced onlookers that he had, in fact, discovered how to turn base metals into gold.5

His master warned that no good would come of this. Supposedly, alchemists exposed as con artists would be paraded about the town square in suits made of tinsel… and then hanged with a gilded rope.6 7

Bottger was not dissuaded, though, and word of this wunderkind spread far and wide. Soon enough, even Frederick I heard the news, and he was slated to become the King of Prussia.8

Few people need gold as badly as a king. It can dazzle foreign dignitaries, finance conquests in far-off lands, and make scandals disappear. As aware of this as any regent, Frederick commanded Bottger to briskly bring his behind to Berlin.

Obviously, Bottger’s tricks wouldn’t have held up to royal scrutiny, so he immediately fled across the border to Poland. There he was safe from Frederick I, but unfortunately this placed him under the jurisdiction of Augustus the Strong, perhaps the only man in Europe with a greater desire for gold. Augustus had his men find Bottger, and he provided the young alchemist with comfortable quarters, delicious food, a well-equipped laboratory, even a billiards room. The young alchemist was given practically anything he could possibly want… except the right to leave. He was under constant watch, and his guards would pelt him with stones if he wandered too close to the gate.9

Bottger labored alongside Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Augustus’s senior scientist, and the two really did perform some cutting-edge chemistry. In the course of their studies, they constructed kilns and crucibles that could withstand greater heat than any that had come before. But no amount of research was going to turn lead into gold, and after years of making excuses for his lack of progress, surely his head was filled with nightly visions of tinseled threads and gilded gallows.

It’s a good thing, then, that either Tschirnhaus realized what they had on their hands in 1706 when they pulled a hard red ceramic out of the fire. It looked an awful lot like some of the statuettes in Augustus’s collection that came from East Asia. It looked… like porcelain.

That’s one of the few substances they could have stumbled upon that was just about as good as gold. Europeans were crazy for the stuff. Porcelain is durable and uniquely beautiful, and at that time, the only people who knew the secret to its creation all lived on the opposite side of the globe. Europeans had been trying for centuries to replicate the fine work of Chinese artisans to no avail. Bottger and Tschirnhaus were about to change all that. Together, they learned that creating porcelain required a special kind of white clay called kaolin and specific varieties of feldspar and quartz. High-quality porcelain also differed from normal pottery, they found, in that the clay and glaze needed to be fired simultaneously and at exceptionally high heat.

Soon the pair was pumping out the best porcelain that was certainly the best in Europe, if not quite as good as China’s china. Bottger had proven his value to Augustus the Strong, which saved his life but also guaranteed his captivity. After all, Augustus couldn’t let Bottger go out and sell the secret of his riches to all the other monarchs in Europe.10

Obviously, Bottger never did find the Philosopher’s Stone, but he did manage to produce a very impressive gilded cage.

Despite his best efforts, there was no way Strong Gus could keep the secret to porcelain’s manufacture under wraps for long. It was similar to a prior struggle four centuries earlier, when German and Dutch glassmakers eventually discovered the methods to create glass as good as the Venetians, even though Venice imprisoned its master glassblowers on the island of Murano.

So within a few decades, the European porcelain industry exploded, and demand for kaolin, feldspar, and quartz did, too. It just so happened that the earth around the tiny Swedish town of Ytterby was particularly rich in feldspar and quartz. Not only that, but the minerals from the Ytterby mine lent bright streaks of color to ceramics. That is why so many prominent geologists and chemists, like Johan Gadolin and Carl Axel Arrhenius, spent their time sifting through soil from this remote locale. Centuries-old secrets, imprisoned alchemists, and geological happenstance all came together to let history never forget the name… Ytterby.11

Incidentally, we occasionally study word origins on this program, and “porcelain” is a word that definitely has surprising origins.

Porcelain was named that due to its resemblance to the cowrie seashell, called “porcella” in Italian. All good so far. But that word shares its roots with the Latin word for “pig.” What possible connection could there be between seashells and sows?

Well, it’s not really a literal connection. Porca was also a word that ancient Romans used as an insult toward women — especially those who happened to be a practitioners of the world’s oldest profession. From there, “porcella” came to be a way to refer to the tools of the trade, so to speak. I’ll let John Dierdorf of the website Word Connections tie it all together: “[T]he porcella sea shell … was named for its shape — a slot down the center with lips furled over — by some dirty-minded beachcomber, and porcelain was later so-called from looking like the smooth white surface of the shell.”12 Just something fun to consider when eating off expensive dishware, or receiving a dental crown.

All that to say that porcelain can make for a beautiful addition to your element collection, even if the ytterbium content is relatively low. Anything from a Hummel figurine to a gravy boat will do, but as a listener of this program, you might be interested in acquiring an insulator from an old vacuum tube computer. Porcelain is a highly effective insulator, and by the 1950s, it was actually pretty cheap.

Ytterbium still sees use in the computer industry, but on a far, far smaller scale. It looks like a promising material to use as memory in quantum computers.

Quantum computers are strange. Everything quantum is strange — unless it’s charm. …or top, or bottom, or up or down. Never mind that.

Traditionally, computers store information as a series of bits. A bit is the smallest piece of information possible: A yes or a no, represented by a 1 or a 0. A bit can be either a 1 or a 0, and it can change from one to the other, but it can only ever be one of those things at a time. Sounds obvious, right?

Well, quantum computing is built on qubits. Qubits are similar to bits — they represent a tiny fragment of information, represented as a zero or a one. Or as a zero and a one. That’s right: Unlike a traditional bit, and in opposition to all common sense, a qubit can say yes and no at the same time. It is as bizarre as it sounds, and it allows scientists to perform tasks that were previously thought to be impossible — or at least infeasible. Building such a device requires materials with some very specific properties — and it turns out that ytterbium meets those requirements pretty well.13 14

Quantum computing is still in its infancy. It’s hard to say just what it could do or how widespread it might become, but scientists are using quantum computers to explore some of the most complex systems on Earth — from artificial intelligence to cryptography to trying to predict the weather.15 In some ways, we might be on the brink of a breakthrough every bit as revolutionary as the silicon microchip. Or maybe, nothing much will happen at all. But we probably will not see both happen simultaneously.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. A tip of the hat to James H. for letting me know about ytterbium’s role in quantum computing. To learn why you could also find ytterbium inside an atomic bomb, visit episodic table dot com slash Y b.

Next time, we’ll stroll down the Champs-Élysées with lutetium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you to vote.


  1. Episodes From The History Of The Rare Earth Elements, p. 67-74. Christopher H. Evans, 2012.
  2. Auer von Welsbach Museum, Discoveries, Inventions, Talents.
  3. The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side, p. 280-281. Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, and Mary Virginia Orna, 2015.
  4. Slate, Ytterby: The Tiny Swedish Island That Gave The Periodic Table Four Different Elements. Sam Kean, 2010.
  5. The Arcanum, by Janet Gleeson. The whole first third of the book is a great source for this story.
  6. The Church Of England Quarterly Review, Volume 34, p. 366. 1853.
  7. St. Paul Medical Journal, Volume 5, p. 484. 1903.
  8. Lapham’s Quarterly, Real-Life Rumpelstiltskin. Suzanne L. Marchand, June 30, 2020.
  9. The New Yorker, The European Obsession With Porcelain. Thessaly La Force, November 11, 2015.
  10. The New York Times, What A Dish! Ed Regis, October 17, 1999.
  11. Digitala Vetenskapliga Arkivet, From Bedrock To Porcelain: A Study Regarding The History Of Porcelain, Ytterby Mine And The Discovery Of Yttrium In Sweden. Timmy Kärrström, Independent Thesis Basic Level.
  12. Word Connections, Porcelain Pigs. John Dierdorf.
  13. Science News, Ytterbium: The Quantum Memory Of Tomorrow. July  23, 2018.
  14. An Introduction To Quantum Computing, Phillip Kaye, Raymond Laflamme, and Michele Mosca.
  15. SingularityHub, 6 Things Quantum Computing Will Be Incredibly Useful For. Mark Jackson, June 25, 2017.

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