S04E13: The Love Car Displacement

You say tomato, I say tomahto. You say lanthanide, I say lanthanoid. Did anyone think Amy made a mistake tonight when she said lanthanoid, not lanthanide? If so, then stay after school to clean the erasers because Amy was right. The IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry,  won’t stand for  it. Despite 90% of scientific literature using lanthanide the ever-vigilant folks at the IUPAC want us to use lanthanoid. And The Big Bang Theory does its part to educate the public.

Puh-lease! The word is "Lanthanoid".

The lanthanoid series of elements is that special part of the periodic table that doesn’t fit horizontally so is usually put at the bottom.  The defining characteristic of an element is the number of protons in its atomic nucleus.  If you are an atom with 57-71 protons, then congratulations, you are a lanthanoid.  From lanthanum to lutetium these elements have room for up to 14  electrons to fill an oddly shaped shell around the atomic nucleus (called the “f-shell”).  The strange shape of their orbits make the lanthanoids the under-appreciated miracle workers of modern technology.

Lanthanoids make The Big Bang Theory television show possible.  Theatrical lighting needs to be bright and just the right color.  Lanthanum (57 protons) and cerium (58 protons) rods in arc lamps are extremely popular on Hollywood sets. Praseodymium (59 protons) in aircraft engines strengthens the metals and bring special guest stars to Burbank Airport. Neodymium (60 protons) and samarium (62 protons) make the highest strength permanent magnets.  Such magnets are likely found in your TV speakers or headphones.   OK, I doubt we use promethium (61 protons) on set, which is always radioactive.  If not for europium (63 protons), we’d  still be watching Big Bang Theory in black & white, missing a key element in the red phosphors that made color TV first possible in the 1960s.    And without gadolinium (64 protons) and terbium (65 protons) there would have been no green.     The show could not be edited if all its high-definition data could not be stored on a hard drive using, you guessed it, the easy magnetization properties of dysprosium (66 protons).   However without holmium (67 protons), the show could go on.   If you watch The Big Bang Theory online, chances are it comes to you on a fiber optic loaded with erbium (68 protons), an optical amplifier.  I confess that the next thulium (69 protons) embargo might not be a show-stopper.    Ytterbium (70 protons) changes its electrical properties under strain and is a key element for monitoring earthquakes;  living in Southern California, we like our ytterbium.   And finally lutetium (71 protons), well, its f-shell is full, so one could argue it shouldn’t be a lanthanoid at all.

The lanthanoids are not popular just because of their good looks.

Why are their names so unfamiliar?  The fact that the lanthanoids  sometimes go by the name rare earths might give you a clue.  It might, but it doesn’t.  The lanthanoids are not particularly rare in the Earth’s crust.   And the word earth originally meant that their oxides were highly alkali and water-insoluble.  Except they are not. You’d think IUPAC would be happy that we at least we’ve mostly stopped calling them rare earths.

The lanthanoids, often called "rare earths", are actually not so rare at all. They are 1000 times more abundant than gold.

But the members of IUPAC are not an easily placated lot.  In English, the suffix -ide, is already reserved in chemistry for an element that has taken up an electron from another atom thereby forming a negative ion.   That’s the -ide in sodium chloride, which is common table salt.  Lanthanoids are lanthanoids no matter what element they are or are not bonded to.

And the periodic table being periodic, the story repeats itself with the actinoids.    If you listened carefully tonight you knew Amy already ruled those out, because they are all radioactive.

22 Responses to “S04E13: The Love Car Displacement”

  1. Simon Says:

    Element naming is more interesting if you look at actinide and toward then end of the periodic table. We get Am, Cf, Bk… (named after places); or Rf, Sg… (named after scientist).

  2. Tweets that mention S04E13: The Love Car Displacement « The Big Blog Theory -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Carroll and Nascent Biologist, Fermin Aceves. Fermin Aceves said: RT @seanmcarroll: The great lanthanoid/lanthanide debate. The Big Bang Theory isn't afraid to take sides. http://is.gd/bQFpvY […]

  3. Zig zag zug Says:

    So Lanthanide aren’t the radioactive ones?
    But… but… lantern! It’s in the word. aww…


    Also, spellchecker comes back as -ide, and if their's one thing I've learned about spelling is that if you try and mess a bit with it a little old lady will happily bludgeon you with a thesaurus. And we're talking Oxford size thesaurus here! (hehehe!)

    What does google define: say about it?


    And only Princeton has heard of it? AH-ha!!! I knew it! Nice try Princeton!

  4. Arturo Quirantes Sierra Says:

    A word from the Spanish front. As the I in IUPAC stands for “International”, it would be a bit preposterous to universally claim that “The suffix -ide, is reserved in chemistry for an element that has given up an electron to another atom” Maybe so in English. But the suffix is different in Spanish. “Sodium chlor-IDE” turns into “clor-URO de sodio.” Therefore, the -ido suffix is free to form “lantánido” (lanthanide). Better somebody warn the international TBBT translation team.

    Any input for other languages?

  5. LB Says:

    Minor correction: “ide” means it has gained an electron from another atom, not given one up. In your example of sodium chloride, the chloride formed after taking an electron from the sodium.

  6. LB Says:

    Also, what a great blog! As a huge fan of comedy and chemistry, I love TBBT and your work on the science end of it makes it such a joy to watch!

  7. feldfrei Says:

    I grew up with the term “lanthanide/actinide” or to be more precise in German: “Lanthanid” (singular) “Lanthanide” (plural) and “Actinid/Actinide”, respectively. Though, I had some teachers notoriously using the “oid(e)” suffix. The structure of the periodic table is quite funny. The effect behind the “delayed” filling of the (hydrogen-like) d- and f-orbitals – screening of the nuclear charge and contraction of these orbitals – was quite familiar to me some time ago. It kept me busy in my PhD work (http://www.mpi-hd.mpg.de/personalhomes/feuerstb/dissertation_feuerstein.pdf – unfortunately only in German).

  8. feldfrei Says:

    Concerning the term “rare earths” I dare to apply some Wikipedia knowlegde I gained a minute ago (that’s the great job of this blog that it provokes one to look up things on the web 🙂
    “However, because of their geochemical properties rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms known as rare earth minerals.”

  9. Chuk Says:

    Thanks, I did not know this. I did think Amy was wrong.

  10. discodave Says:

    Thanks for clearing that up. I noticed it, “lanthanoid” sounded wrong to me. But I figured it had to be correct, since TBBT has a pretty bright science advisor on staff!

  11. Gayan Says:

    Thank you for the great article.

    There’s small mistake in the number of protons of Thulium, Ytterbium and Lutetium you might want to correct.

  12. Vi burde være lanthaniderne (57-71) evigt taknemmelige! | De Små Kemikere Says:

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  13. DEL Says:

    I would like to see an episode where Sheldon is pulled over for speeding by a Police Radar Unit. The Police set their radar unit on a street where they targeted people driving around a curve in the road.

    Here is the science portion. Now, I am not a science guy, so, I am basing this off of a teacher who claimed he was ticketed for speeding. He claimed the radar was distorted and was not a true reading of his actual speed. He fought it in court and won. He sited that radar being “shot” at a car while on a curve caused the radar to reflect back with a higher speed due to the bending of the signal off the metal of the car as it was in the turn.

    So, if this is true and a radar reading from a car that was in a curve when “shot” produces a higher speed…….this would be a great storyline for Sheldon to fight the system. Howard, Raj and Leonard help him create diagrams, charts and a live demonstration for the court. Penny can be advising Sheldon to simply pay the ticket and forget about it.

    Can you tell me if the science in the Teacher’s story correct?

    Thanks in advance. Huge fan.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    awfully late for such a comment, but the actinoid americium (95) is commonly in smoke detectors. but anyway.

  15. aaron Says:

    Short and sweet.. there is something that is itching my brain.. if the universe was born, with a big bang “theory”..
    What was before? Where were the boundaries? what was beyond?

  16. Gina Densler Says:

    You should recommend that they write an episode involving the guys visiting Analytical Graphics, Inc (AGI the makers of STK) in Exton, PA. We make the software that Howard would use and our corp headquarters has a lot of personality. Our software provides 3D analysis of things like possible conjuctions, launches, burn maneuvers, and sensor field of views. We even have our own rocket scientist and employees with a lot of personality. We are well known in the space community and in use at places like Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). Check out http://www.agi.com.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    • del Says:

      Ok, I thought of another good idea for an episode…..Penny goes to school….she is asked to take a placement test……as she is taking the test, she realizes that she knows a lot of the answers…..that her hanging out with the “nerds” seems to have rubbed off on her.

      When gets her results, she is scored at a much higher level than she (or anyone) could have imagined. She flashes back to times where the guys debated or discussed their work or science in general…..during the flash back whenever the camera shows her, she has this glazed over look….as if all she is hearing is the noise Charlie Brown would here when his teacher spoke….

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Amazing this blog see my vidéo please about sheldon cooper :

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