In 1789, German chemist Martin Klaproth was checking out a dark mineral known as pitchblende, which came from a silver mine. His experiments produced a previously undiscovered element. Inspired by the discovery of the planet Uranus eight years before, Klaproth named his new element “uranium” in its honor.
It’s not the only new element whose name was inspired by the heavens. In 1803, one was named cerium in honor of Ceres, a body between Mars and Jupiter discovered just two years earlier. At the time, Ceres was considered to be a planet. As it turned out, though, it was one of millions of bodies in a region known today as the asteroid belt.
And the list doesn’t end there.
In 1940, scientists created a new element in the lab. It has an atomic number of 93, which means it has 93 protons and 93 electrons. That’s one beyond uranium, which is the heaviest of all natural elements. Since the new element was the next one in the periodic table, scientists named it “neptunium,” for the planet beyond Uranus.
Soon after that came the creation of element 94. Like uranium and neptunium, it’s radioactive. That gave it potential military uses, so its existence remained secret until after World War II. By then, scientists had named it for the ninth planet, Pluto: plutonium. And even though Pluto is now described as a dwarf planet, plutonium retains its name — a merger of exploration on the smallest and largest of scales.
Script by Damond Benningfield