Monday, September 28, 2009

70. Ytterbium


Elements Day

Ytterby is a small town on an island ten miles northeast of Stockholm, and has the pleasant distinction of having four elements—erbium, terbium, yttrium, and ytterbium—named after it. All were extracted from ore mined in a feldspar quarry there.

Small wonder that Elements Day is such a big deal in Ytterby.

If ever you have the opportunity to attend, by all means do—nobody knows how to have good, rowdy fun like the Swedes! The day begins with not one but two parades, one representing Organic Chemistry and the other Inorganic. Each is led by a "fool chemist," madly dressed in stained lab smock and colored goggles, riding an enormous Erlenmeyer or Florence flask on a float pushed by dozens of riotous celebrants.

Around and through the narrow streets of Ytterby the parades circle in upon each other, finally clashing at the center of town, where the fool chemists mock-joust with long spatulas. The crowd joins in an enormous food fight (for all food is, ultimately, chemicals), flinging handfuls of spaghetti, lasagna and other traditional dishes about with great abandon.

After the War between Organic and Inorganic Chemistry there are numerous contests, competitions and attractions: rare mud wrestling, a battle of the brass bands, a race to synthesize a silk purse from a sow's ear, a heavy metal concert, and much, much more.

For the boys, there is a "best impersonation" competition, in which they dress up as Berzelius, Scheele, and other great Swedish chemists. The young ladies compete in a beauty contest for the honor of becoming Miss Ytterby. The four runners-up serve as her court of honor, one of each of the local elements.

At night the fun continues with fireworks, dancing in the streets, and the sort of wild carousing that would make a German blush. Finally, though, the music dies away, the lights fade, and the streets empty. Two by two, the Swedes retire to their bedrooms, there to behave in an elemental fashion.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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