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Show Me Your Metal! Part II

Greetings all, welcome to part two of three in the series on Greek and Latin derived symbols in the periodic table. This article continues to look at symbols that come from names the ancient used for metals. Last time we looked at perhaps the most famous, and here we will look at four lesser-known metal symbols with ancient connections.

But first, let me introduce you to Pliny the Elder, who furnishes our evidence for Roman knowledge of the metals we are going to look at. Pliny was a prominent Roman statesman, who wrote an extensive, and indeed remarkable, work called ‘Natural History’ (Naturalis Historia). Among other topics, he includes a great deal of detail on the natural resources of different lands and peoples, and not just minerals. So, with Pliny as our guide let’s look at four new metals: mercury, sodium, tin, and antimony.

Mercury (Hg): mercury, also known as quicksilver, the only metal to be liquid at room temperature, was known in ancient times. Pliny deals with this metal in book XXXIII.32, which he calls ‘argentum vivum’ – ‘living silver’, thus recognizing its liquid property. The chemical symbol, however, comes from a Greek term for the element, which calls mercury ‘water silver’ (hydrargurion), also referencing its liquid state at normal temperature.

Sodium (Na): it’s the turn of sodium. Pliny describes this element when he talks of the cultivation of radishes (XIX.26, yes, radishes) and he records that the Egyptians sprinkle them with a substance called nitron. Another form of this is natron, which is where Na as the symbol comes from. Nitron is a form of sodium carbonate. Apparently, radishes produce tender roots when grown in this, so if you like radishes and want gardening tips, go ask Pliny.

Tin (Sn): The symbol for tin comes from the metal the Romans called stannum, which seems also to have denoted an alloy of lead and silver. Indeed, tin shares similar properties to these metals. Tin was used in bronze, a copper/tin alloy, and pewter, a lead/tin alloy. Pliny mentions tin or ‘stannum’ on several occasions (XXXIV.47-48). Tin was also known to the Greeks and the word they used was κασσίτερος (cassiteros) and would refer to a group of islands where it could be mined as the Cassiterides (see Herodotus, III.117 for example). It is now generally agreed that these probably referred to the Scilly Isles.

Antimony (Sb): ‘There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium…’, (okay, I love The Elements Song from legendary Tom Lehrer). But apart from the distinction of opening Lehrer’s witty little ditty, it was a metal known to our ancient friend, Pliny the Elder. This metal’s symbol from almost the opposite end of the alphabet comes from the Latin stibium, from the Greek στίβι or στίμμι. Pliny (XXIX.38) describes it as a good remedy for watery eyes when mixed with Attic honey and the fat of a field mouse. Nice! He also talks about the metal at XXXIII.33-5, where he discusses its use to cure various ailments, but also as eyeshadow. Yeah, that’s going to do your sight so much good! So, he was no doctor, but he has preserved the remarkable depth of the ancients’ knowledge of the world around them.

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