Monday, September 28, 2009

68. Erbium


Tarzan of the Periodic Table

Erbium was named after the monogram of its discoverer, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though better known for his science fantasies set on Mars, Venus, and Pellucidar, and for the adventures of a certain jungle hero, Burroughs was in fact a chemist of serious renown.

How this came about is an interesting tale. Burroughs' parents were missionaries who were sent to convert the northern Sami peoples. They died in a shipwreck off the coast of Uppsala, however, and the infant Edgar was raised by Swedish scientists. Ignorant of his true name, they dubbed him Lars-Sven. When he began to speak, the child mispronounced his adopted name as "Tar-Zan," and the nickname stuck.

As a young adult, Burroughs quickly rose to a dominant position among the tribe of chemists. He was the first to produce cerium by decomposing its oxide using potassium vapor. From the same ore, he derived lanthanum. Yet another ore he split into three elements—yttrium, terbium, and (of course) erbium. But then disaster struck! Burroughs had announced the discovery of an element he called "didymium." An Austrian named Karl von Welsbach proved it to be a blend of two separate elements, praseodymium and neodymium.

Burroughs was driven out of Sweden in disgrace.

A creature of two worlds now, neither fully human nor fully a chemist, Burroughs had no choice but to become a writer. His sad personal history he encoded into his Tarzan of the Apes books. Where he had been thrown out of the garden of chemistry, however, his eponymous hero remained eternally welcome in Africa.

He died in 1950, wealthy, beloved, and heartbroken. His last spoken word was "Didymium."

During his lifetime, Burroughs personally discovered fifteen lost cities. He had no choice—all his fiction was autobiographical, and he needed the material.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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