Plutonium: Why science should officially not be taken seriously

Illustration for article titled Plutonium: Why science should officially not be taken seriously

Did you know that plutonium is a literal joke? Not the full name, which is a fair enough name (though unaffiliated with an actual planet anymore). That little square on the periodic table is a joke, made by plutonium's discoverer, meant to stay up there for all time.


Plutonium, now that we all know what it can do, is not a particularly funny element. When we think of it, we generally worry. When we're not worrying, we might admire it as a scientific achievement. Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan discovered the element in 1940, after shooting uranium-238 with the combination proton-neutron teams known as deuterons. Both scientists were part of the slow process of filling in the Periodic Table of Elements, and the controversial process of making one of the most feared weapons.

But they still couldn't resist a pun. Plutonium is a perfectly respectable name for an element. They didn't mess with that. They just considered the correct two-letter abbreviation to put on the Periodic Table. McMillan suggested the serviceable Pi, but Seaborg wanted something else. He asked for a the abbreviation to be "Pu," because it reminded him of the exaggerated "Pee-you" that kids made when the smelled something disgusting. That's right. He knew he had discovered an element, was dealing with one of the most sacred guides in all of science, and was cementing his own place in science history - but still found time to make a stinky pun. And everyone just went along with it. So, always respect scientists. They contribute much to society. Just think of this whenever anyone asks you to take them too seriously.


Via Reflections on the Legacy of a Legend.

Photo by Mooshuu.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


The names of quarks (Up, down, strange, charm) are accepted as being named by silly physicists. I have been told apocryphally more than once that the instruction set unit known as a nibble or 'nybble' was at first a private in joke that escaped the two or three programmers who were using the term.