Pity poor Norway. Its two contributions to our itinerary comprise maelstrom, a name no longer used on any maps, and the Oslo breakfast, a little-heard-of diet abandoned sixty years ago. To add salt to under-representation wounds, across the border in Sweden you’ll find a tiny unassuming village, on an island barely a single square mile in size, that has contributed not just one but four different words to our language and has provided the scientific community with a whole lot more than that.
The village in question is Ytterby, which stands on the islet of Resaro in the Stockholm archipelago. To it we owe the words yttrium, terbium, erbium and ytterbium – the names of chemical elements numbers 39, 65, 68 and 70.
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Several places around the globe have been immortalised on the periodic table, two of which lie ahead of us on this trip. But considerably fewer places have been immortalised more than once: if you count both californium and berkelium, named after Berkeley National Laboratory, then California makes this select list with two, while thanks to germanium, darmstadtium and hassium, Germany has three. But Ytterby appears in the etymologies of no fewer than four different elements. So how did such an insignificant spot come to have such unique scientific importance?
In the late eighteenth century a mine was opened on the outskirts of Ytterby to raid the rich deposits of quartz and feldspar found nearby. As demand for both minerals increased (quartz was used in the manufacture of iron, feldspar in the manufacture of porcelain), the mine was steadily expanded and deepened, eventually unearthing something considerably more exciting than feldspar.
In 1787, an amateur mineralogist named Carl Axel Arrhenius stumbled across a peculiarly dense black rock in a pile of rubble and other waste material from the Ytterby mine. Arrhenius wagered that the seemingly unique rock – which he named ytterbite – must contain a deposit of the newly discovered element tungsten, and so sent a sample to Johan Gadolin, professor of chemistry at the Finnish Royal Academy, for a second opinion.
After much experimentation, Gadolin concluded that far from containing mere tungsten, roughly a third of Arrhenius’s extraordinary rock was comprised of an oxide of an entirely new, and as yet unidentified, chemical element. What Gadolin didn’t know, however, was that even that remarkable discovery was just the tip of a very significant scientific iceberg.
Gadolin could only describe the properties of his new discovery, as the techniques and equipment available to him at the time prevented him from isolating a pure sample. Instead, it fell to later chemists and their ever improving scientific knowhow to pick up where his work had left off. So, in 1797, the Swedish chemist Anders Gustaf Ekeberg confirmed Gadolin’s findings, and named the oxide he had discovered yttria, in honour of Arrhenius’s ytterbite. In 1828, a sample of the element Gadolin had predicted was finally isolated by the German chemist Friedrich Wohler, who named it yttrium. Next to pick up the case was a Swedish chemist named Carl Gustaf Mosander, who in 1843 found that Ekeberg’s yttria was actually a mixture of three different oxides, which he named yttria, terbia and erbia; terbia and erbia, he later discovered, each contained their own unique chemical elements too, which he gave the names terbium and erbium. Finally, in 1878, the Swiss chemist Jean-Charles de Marignac separated one final element from Gadolin’s sample, which he gave the name ytterbium.
All four of these elements – yttrium, terbium, erbium and ytterbium -were given names honouring the tiny mining town where their source mineral had been found, entirely by chance, almost a century earlier. Ytterby’s unique place in the scientific canon was ultimately assured -but, even then, Arrhenius’s ytterbite still had a few secrets left to reveal.
By the end of the nineteenth century, samples of Arrhenius’s rock were being analysed and investigated independently by scientists all across Europe. The discoveries kept on coming. In 1878, a Swedish chemist and biologist named Per Teodor Cleve found two further elements in a sample of the oxide erbia, which he named holmium (after the Latin name for Stockholm, Holmia) and thulium (after Thule, a classical name for Scandinavia). In 1879, fellow Swedish chemist Lars Fredrik Nilson discovered another new element, which he named scandium in honour of its native Scandinavia. In 1886, French chemist
Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran isolated another element from erbium ores, which he gave a name, dysprosium, quite appropriately derived from the Greek for ‘hard to obtain’. And lastly, one final element was discovered in a sample of Arrhenius’s rock in 1907, which the French scientist Georges Urbain named lutetium, in honour of the Roman name for Paris, Lutetia.
Had the architects of these final few discoveries had a few more letters left to play with in the name Ytterby, it’s tempting to presume that the town’s contribution to the periodic table might have been even greater. But there’s only so much you can do with a seven-letter word, so they had to look elsewhere for their etymological inspiration. Nevertheless, all in all that peculiar black rock found on the rubbish heap of a feldspar mine outside the tiny village of Ytterby had given the world eight new rare earth metals and the dictionary four extraordinary new words.
Even Scotland has one in the form of strontium, which was discovered in rocks mined near the village of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands in 1790.
For his work on ytterbite, the mineral was eventually renamed gadolinite in Johan Gadolin’s honour.
In 1880, de Marignac discovered another new element, which he named gadolinium in Johan Gadolin’s honour.
Another of Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s discoveries was the chemical element gallium, which he found via spectroscopy in 1875. He named his discovery in honour of his native France, the Latin name for which was Gallia, but rumours soon emerged that de Boisbaudran had also cheekily intended to name his discovery after himself: Le coq is French for ‘rooster’, which in Latin is gallus. Convention at the time preferred scientists to avoid such self-aggrandising practices, and de Boisbaudran came under so much criticism that he felt compelled to deny the suggestion and reiterate the name’s true origin in a paper published in 1877. ‘On August 27, 1875,’ he wrote, ‘between three and four at night, I perceived the first indications of the existence of a new element that I named gallium in honor of France, Gallia.’