Filling the Periodic Table: New Names for the Newest Elements

Periodic table with science objects
Periodic Table of the Elements (Image credit: isak55 , Shutterstock)

Four new elements have four new names: nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson.

These names correspond to elements 113, 115, 117 and 118, which scientists announced they had found in January, but had not yet named.

The new names were announced Wednesday (June 8) by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the organization that standardizes chemical element names. But don't buy a new periodic table just yet; there will be a five-month window for public comments on the names, after which they will be finalized.

The endings of each of the proposed names (such as –ium) reflect the element's place in the periodic table. The rest of the name is specific to each element's discovery, according to a statement that IUPAC issued in recommending the new names. The proposed names came from the labs that collaborated on the discovery of each element, according to the recommendation. [Elementary, My Dear: 8 Elements You've Never Heard Of]

“It is a pleasure to see that specific places and names (country, state, city and scientist) related to the new elements is recognized in these four names," said Jan Reedijk, who authored the recommendation, in a comment to the IUPAC.

Nihonium (symbol Nh, element number 113) was discovered at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan. "Nihon" is one way to say "Japan" in Japanese. 

Moscovium (Mc, 115) is named after Moscow, which is just south of where the experiments discovering it were conducted at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, in Russia.

Tennessine (Ts, 117) is in recognition of research contributions from the state of Tennessee. This includes work from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee.

Oganesson (Og, 118) is named after experimental physicist Yuri Oganessian for a lifetime of work in the field, including research done at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. If the name is accepted, it will be one of the few elements named after a living person. Seaborgium, element 106, was named for Glenn T. Seaborg, according to the New York Times. And elements 99 and 100 were named after the physicists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi while both men were still alive, according to the LA Times. But because of the Cold War, the discoveries of those elements, along with their names, were classified at the time. Both scientists had died by the time the information was declassified, according to the Times.

Although there may not be any major disputes over whether the names properly give credit or recognition where it is due, the public response window will be valuable, given that these names are meant to be used around the world, in many languages, said Cleveland Evans, a professor of psychology who studies names and naming at Bellevue University in Nebraska and chairs the Name of the Year committee for the American Name Society.

"There's a slight chance that one of these names will resemble something that turns out to be very humorous or bad in another language, which would be a good thing to know beforehand," Evans told Live Science. [In Photos: Notorious Retired Hurricane Names]

He noted that naming things after living people is sometimes frowned upon.

"Although these choices may perhaps be viewed by some as slightly self-indulgent, the names are completely in accordance with IUPAC rules," Reedijk said in his comment. IUPAC rules allow naming elements after living people.

"I'm quite pleased by them," Geoff Rayner-Canham, a chemist at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University in Canada, told Live Science in an email. "They have been agreed upon by all the possible claimants, unlike the controversies with alternative names for the same elements in earlier cases." Rayner-Canham has written about the history of science and element-naming controversies.

Original article on Live Science.

Staff Writer
Greg Uyeno is a science journalist. He has studied cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley and journalism at New York University. He’s always interested in the language of science and the science of language.