Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!
“Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!”

You might see “ytterbium” and think it sprang from some Scrabble champ’s wet dream, or that it’s a young left winger drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. And it probably is. But also, it’s a little more.

Specifically, ytterbium is a chemical element — atomic number 70, if you’re scoring at home — and a member of the lanthanide series. And while “lanthanide” sounds like another puck-chucking hockey punk from East Brrritscoldistan, the series (plus a couple of kindred elements nearby on the periodic table) has another name, somewhat easier on the tongue: rare earth elements.

While easier to pronounce, it turns out “rare earth elements” isn’t really a great name. Granted, the “elements” part is accurate. And they do come from “earth”, or rather usually buried under quite a lot of it. But they’re not “rare”, for the most part, if you’re talking about the percentage of the planet’s crust they make up. The real issue with rare earth elements is they’re not often found in easily-mined ores. They tend to spread out in trace amounts, and clump up with similar elements so they’re difficult to separate. Many, including ytterbium, are fairly common; they’re just a pain in the ass to work with.

Still, it’s hard to blame scientists for the “rare” label. Nobody wants a “persnickety earth element” series on their periodic chart.

Speaking of persnickety, ytterbium certainly qualifies. At room temperature, it’s a shiny silvery metal that’s also also soft and squishable — like Play-Doh made from aluminum foil. This would be awesome, except that pure ytterbium will also irritate your eyes and skin, produce toxic fumes, violently explode and catch on fire in the way that water can’t put out. So it sits there, saying “play with me!“, all the while plotting your destruction in fourteen different ways. Like an evil sparkly porcupine, or a silver-plated Joker.

Which, I suppose, is coming. Super.

Because it’s difficult to extract — or because it’s dangerous as hell, maybe — only about fifty tons of ytterbium are produced worldwide each year. That’s not much, relatively speaking, but it makes sense because we haven’t found many things we can use ytterbium for.

(Contrast this with Adam Sandler movies, which are hauled in by the billions of tons every year, and no one’s found anything yet that those are good for. Chemists one, Hollywood zero.)

Still, ytterbium is good for a couple of things — and the very best we have at one. Certain ytterbium isotopes can produce gamma rays, which can be used in medical imaging, similar to X-rays. It can also be added to stainless steel to optimize certain properties, and to the materials used to generate solid state and other lasers.

But where ytterbium really shines is in telling time. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), ytterbium atomic clocks are the most stable in the world. NIST’s ytterbium clock is so accurate, it could keep “perfect timing for a period comparable to the age of the universe”. Tough titties, Timex. And suck it, cesium.

So that’s ytterbium’s claim to fame. It may never hoist the Stanley Cup or stretch across a Triple Word Score — although, could you imagine? — but it has one thing going for it: it’ll take a licking and keep on ticking.

But seriously, don’t lick ytterbium. That would hurt so bad. Ow.

Actual Science:
The Guardian / GrrlScientistYtterbium
Uncertain PrinciplesLaser-cooled atoms: ytterbium
NISTNIST ytterbium atomic clocks set record for stability
NatureChemistry: degrees of separation

Image sources: (ytterbium), CBC Sports (Y…y…y…ytterbium the Jet), MoviePilot (silver-toothed Joker), Memes of Doom (Adam and Adam)

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· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Transactinides: They're not heavy. They're your metals.
“Transactinides: They’re not heavy. They’re your metals.”

The transactinides are a group of fifteen elements — fundamental building blocks of matter, like carbon or hydrogen or double-sided duct tape. But transactinides are pretty special elements, in a number of ways.

First, the transactinide elements are all radioactive, which means they spontaneously split apart into other elements, releasing energy in the process. What’s more, these elements are highly volatile — even the most stable break down within about twenty-eight hours. Much like that drama major you dated back in college.

Transactinides are also the heaviest elements known to exist — and none have ever been detected in nature. We’ve only found them in the laboratory, by cramming atoms of smaller elements together until they stick for a few seconds, like some kind of chemically-unstable PB&J.

(I don’t know what a PB&J decays into, exactly. Strawberry Pop-Tarts? A jelly doughnut? Uncrustables?

This is why you don’t see many snack-related analogies in chemistry textbooks. Clearly, sandwich science is still in its infancy.)

These elements are so bleeding-edge, they don’t even get real names until they’ve been produced in a lab and the results tested and repeated. At that point, a newly “confirmed” transactinide is usually named in honor of someone important to science. Like Rutherfordium was named after physicist Ernest Rutherford, or Seaborgium for a race of Doctor Who villains, I think, or Livermorium, which was named after something a bird said in an Edgar Allen Poe poem. Science is all over the map sometimes.

But before those fancy names, the more theoretical transactinides get systematic titles to identify them. These provisional names are built from Greek and Latin roots for numbers, smooshed together like the ephemeral atomic phenomena they describe. So the element with atomic number 113, for instance, is currently called ununtrium, while the heaviest transactinide, with atomic number 118, is ununoctium.

(Nobody in science really uses these names, for two reasons. First, it’s simpler to just say “element 118”. And second, nobody wants to spend their career trying to produce something that sounds like a disease you get from licking raw chicken meat.)

While most of the periodic table is well established at this point, physical chemists still work on transactinide elements — usually trying to produce the ones not yet confirmed. Just this week, element 117 — or ununseptium, if you prefer your science Gregorian chant-style — was confirmed by a lab in Germany. It was first synthesized by a joint American-Russian team in 2010, who fired a beam of heavy calcium isotopes into a bunch of berkelium atoms to get the job done.

That was a challenge in itself. Berkelium currently only exists on this planet as the result of synthesis experiments and “nuclear incidents” — like an H-bomb test, or Chernobyl disaster.

Also, berkelium’s half life is less than a year, so if the scientists couldn’t agree quickly about how to do the experiment, the berkelium they made for it would have already turned into something else.

So basically, this marks the only time in recorded history when Americans and Russians have gotten their shit together in short order to produce something good. From sammiches to glasnost, is there anything transactinides can’t do?

Image sources: Chemicool (ununseptium), Wikipedia and Philica and Smuckers and and SodaHead (PB&J decay), What Culture (Cybermen/”Seaborgmen”), GlobalResearch (Putin/Obama)

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