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The Straight Scoop on Uranium

Blame the scientist who “almost” discovered uranium on why this atomic element is named after the seventh planet from the sun. Imagine if the sequence below had taken place in any other way. What would we now be calling the yellowcake that powers nuclear reactors across the world? You would be surprised. This is the story behind uranium’s name.

The word “uranium” has a confusing past, but through no fault of its own. Since the beginning of the sixteenth century, in a silver mining town in an area which is now part of the Czech Republic, miners discovered a black mineral they called “pechblende.” Pitchblende, or uraninite as it is now better known, is a uranium-rich mineral which is also comprised of lead, thorium, radio and rare earths. In the late 19th century, it was from this same northwest Bohemian town where Marie Curie got her pitchblende and isolated radium and polonium from the ore.

European scientists Roentgen, Becquerel, Villard, and others were aggressively experimenting with pitchblende and discovered ionizing radiation, X-rays, beta radiation and gamma rays. Pierre and Marie Curie named the gamma ray phenomenon, attributed to the radium in pitchblende, “radioactivity.” MIT professor of biology Samuel Prescott, who was closely following Madam Curie’s research, began testing those gamma rays on food. He discovered the gamma rays destroyed bacteria in food. From Prescott’s work, food manufacturers discovered they could extend the shelf life of canned goods. Since then, radiation and radioactivity have become an integral part of both the medical profession and the food industry.

Let’s go back about one century. In 1789, Martin Heinrich Klaproth presented his discovery of a “strange kind of half metal” to Berlin’s Royal Academy of Sciences. The German chemist had, on the face of it, isolated uranium oxide from pitchblende. Klaproth suggested this new atomic element (number 92 on the periodic chart) be called “uran.”

Not until 1841 did another European scientist, Eugene-Melchior Peligot, finally isolate uranium as an atomic element. Klaproth was just stabbing in the dark when he tried to identify what “uranium” was. He failed to explain what uranium was, or even to understand it. Nonetheless, his credibility remained intact as a pioneering scientist. Martin Klaproth was later credited for isolating zirconium, chromium and cerium.

Klaproth’s naming ceremony for uranium was a political move, moreso than a scientific christening of the 92nd element. It was because of Dr. Bode. His Royal Academy colleague, German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, had been fuming since England’s William Herschel had discovered the seventh planet. Herschel honored King George III by calling this planet, “the Georgium Sidus (the Georgian Planet). Bode argued the new planet be renamed to conform to the classically mythological names of the other planets, such as Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Bode chose Uranus, the Greek name for the earliest supreme god.

The Uranus planetary debate went on for about, and was finally settled in 1850, about the same time that a British firm began using uranium in glass to give it a fluorescent yellow or greenish appearance. The point is this: If Klaproth hadn’t contributed to the Uranus-versus-Georgium Sidus debate by naming his “strange half metal” uran, we might be call uranium stocks something else.
About the Author:
James Finch contributes to StockInterview.com and other publications. His archived articles can be found on the internet news website, StockInterview.com, which can be found at http://www.stockinterview.com The above article was a brief excerpt from the upcoming publication, entitled "Investors Guide to Uranium Stocks." For more information about this book, please contact editor@stockinterview.com.
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