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Chemistry for Muggles – Part 3 Posted by on Nov 7, 2011 in language

This is the long-awaited third part of the Chemistry for Muggles by our guest blogger, Rob.

Throughout Part 1 and Part 2, I’ve referred back to the «периодическая таблица химических элементов Менделеева» [Mendeleev’s periodic table of the chemical elements]. Mendeleev’s most important brainstorm was that elements with similar properties could be grouped into vertical columns called «группы» [groups] and horizontal rows called «периоды» [periods] — hence the table’s name.

And in this third and final section, we’ll take another look at Mendeleev’s concept of vertical “groups” — and how they serve to organize elements within the table according to similar physical properties.

So, to continue our chemistry lesson, let’s take a few steps back from the heavyweight «свинец» [lead] to the second-lightest element, located in…

Group 18: «Благородные (Инертные) газы» [Noble or Inert Gases]


The second-lightest element after «водород» [hydrogen] is гелий [helium]- whose name comes from the Greek word for the sun, helios, because back in 1868, astronomers were able to deduce that the sun contained a then-unknown element — which turned out to be гелий, and which was later discovered to exist on Earth in very small amounts.

Oddly enough, however, it wasn’t until 1925 that a brilliant young doctoral student named Cecilia Payne «сумела доказать, в своей диссертации, что солнце состоит по большей части из водорода» [she managed to prove, in her dissertation, that the Sun is composed mainly of hydrogen]. Surprisingly, as late as the mid-1920s, nearly all astronomers assumed that the Sun and other stars were formed mostly of metals such as «железо» [iron].

Anyway, «гелий» is the first in the vertical group of non-reactive elements that are sometimes called «благородные газы» [the noble gases] because, just like stereotypical aristocrats, «гелий» and «неон» [neon] and their heavier siblings in this group «отказываются от связей с другими атомами» [refuse to bond with other atoms].

Group 1: Щелочные Металлы (“Alkali Metals”)

At the extreme left of the table is «литий» [lithium] – the lightest element in the vertical category known as «щелочные металлы» [alkali metals], which are all highly unstable in their pure metallic form and burn explosively in contact with water.

The Russian name of the alkali metal group derives from «щёлок» [lye], which in modern English signifies either sodium hydroxide, NaOH, or potassium hydroxide, KOH. More generally, the noun «щёлочь» means a “base” (as in the opposite of «кислота» [acid]) or “alkaline substance” — for example, any «водяной раствор» [aqueous solution] with a pH higher than 7 is a «щёлочь».

Moving directly downward from «литий», we find sodium, whose Russian name «натрий» ultimately comes (by way of Latin and Hebrew) from the ancient Egyptian root n-t-r, meaning — guess what? — «щёлок»!


«Гидроксид натрия» also known as «каустическая сода» [Sodium hydroxide or caustic soda]  is a very strong «щёлочь» (“alkaline substance”). The adjective «едкий» comes from the verb «есть» [to eat], and can also be used figuratively: «Оскар Уайльд был знаменит едким юмором» [ Oscar Wilde was famous for (his) biting/caustic humor.]

Historically, some types of lye were produced by cooking «зола» [wood ashes] in a huge metal «котёл» [cauldron; metal cooking pot], which serves to explain the Russian name, by way of Arabic, of the element that we find right below sodium — «калий» [potassium].

Group 17: «Галогены» [Halogens]

The alkali metals’ equally reactive counterparts, «галогены» [halogens] are at the far right of the table. This group includes «хлор» [chlorine] and «йод» [iodine] whose names in both Russian and English allude to the pale colors of their gaseous forms: chlor- means “green” in Greek, while iodes is Greek for the purple spring flowers known as «фиалки» [violets].

If the inert gases such as helium and neon are the aloof «дворяне» [noblemen] of the periodic table, then the alkali metals might be called «извращённые распутники» [perverted libertines], while the halogens are «бесстыдные шлюхи» [shameless sluts], who will associate with just about any substance, often in a violently corrosive way, which is why the lightest and most reactive member of the halogen group, fluorine is called «фтор» in Russian. In Greek, phtor signifies «разрушение» [destruction]!

Yet when an alkali metal and a halogen get together, the resulting «соединение» [compound] is typically quite stable and well-behaved, including «хлорид натрия» [sodium chloride], more commonly known as ordinary «соль» [salt]. And this is the source of the term “halogens”, which comes from a Greek phrase that can either mean “born from salt” or “gives birth to salt”.

Finally, you couldn’t be reading any of this on your computer without the Group 14 element «кремний» [silicon], whose compounds are used nowadays for electronic circuits and also in a huge assortment of specialized plastics collectively described with the term «силикон» [silicone – note the “e” at the end]. «Кремний» got its name from «кремень» [flint], the mineral from which it was first isolated.


In English, “silicon” (the pure element) is frequently confused with “silicone” (any of various forms of plastic based on compounds of silicon). But the Russian names are impossible to mix up!

Not only is silicon essential for microchips and fake breasts, it’s almost (though not quite!) as chemically versatile as «углерод» [carbon], which sits directly above it in Group 14. Because of the behavioral similarities between the two elements, «биохимики» [biochemists] as well as «писатели-фантасты»  [science fiction writers] have long speculated about the possibility of «инопланетная жизни на основе кремния вместо углерода» [extraterrestrial life based on silicon instead of carbon].

Everything Glows: A few facts about «радиоактивность» [radioactivity]

«Висмут» [bismuth] is the heaviest element that is generally NOT radioactive, although bismuth does have «радиоактивные изотопы» [radioactive isotopes]. But once we get past bismuth, «радиоактивность» [radioactivity] is the rule, not the exception.

None of the radioactive elements were isolated and named until in recent centuries — for example, «уран» [uranium] was discovered in 1789, and named in honor of the planet «Уран» [Uranus], which was found by astronomers just eight years earlier. But most of the other radioactive elements weren’t found till the 20th century, and thus all of them are known by international, Latin-sounding names that are practically the same in English in Russian.

For this reason, we won’t talk in detail about any of the radioactive elements individually, but to say just a few words «о радиоактивности, как явлении» [about radioactivity as a phenomenon]. The radioactivity of an isotope is affected by its «атомный вес» [atomic weight]. For example, «уран-238» is a weakly radioactive and stable variety of «уран», while «уран-235» is a slightly lighter but far more radioactive isotope that can be used for atomic bombs, and also for power generation in «атомная электростанция» [nuclear plant].

However, not all radioactivity is equal! For example, «альфа-частица» [an alpha particle] is quite heavy and almost incapable of penetrating solid matter, even regular «алюминиевая фольга» [aluminum foil]. Conversely, «бета-частица» [beta-particle] is a high-speed electron that passes through many solid materials that can easily block alpha radiation. Finally, «гамма-лучи» [gamma rays] aren’t particles of matter at all. They’re a form of электромагнитное излучение с ультракороткой длиной волны» [electromagnetic radiation with  very short wave lengths”), and for this reason, gamma-radiation «легко проникает даже через свинец [it easily penetrates even through lead]. Of course, all three forms of «атомная радиация» are dangerous and «могут вызывать генетические мутации или рак (“they can cause genetic mutations or cancer”), but α -radiation is somewhat easier to protect oneself against.

And that concludes our three-part survey of the chemical elements! But, once again, here’s a trivia question: Although we’ve discussed quite a few elements whose names in Russian are of Slavic origin, there are at least two elements whose international, neo-Latin names are also derived from Slavic sources.

Hint: They’re both very heavy and radioactive!

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  1. Richard:

    That’s odd, I could have sworn that the man in that picture is Howard Hughes in his later years: