Tag Archives: Hebrew

Dreidels and Chemistry

Honestly it’s only a one word connection, but it sticks for some reason.


So trivia for you: gadolinium (Gd, element 64) is the only element in the periodic table with a Hebrew etymology.


Gadol means great in Hebrew.


You see it in nes gadol haya sham meaning a great miracle happened there, this time of year. It’s a reference to the story of Chanukah, and dreidels have the first letter of each word on their sides. (Those same letters are also used to stand for whether you take or put into the pot when gambling with dreidels.)


Dreidel as a gambling game has roots in European history. Apparently it’s a riff off of an old Irish and English game called teetotum, and the terms for dreidel are Yiddish, a hybrid of Hebrew and German.


There’s some debate over whether the Hebrew letters on a dreidel (Nun, gumel, hei, shin) were there first in reference to the rules of the game and the Chanukah meaning added after, or if the game rules were tailored to fit the acronym celebrating Chanukah. I’ve seen arguments both ways and don’t have the background to make a call on it!


Gadolinium is one of the Lanthanides (f-block elements) naturally occurring rare earth metals. In nature it is only found in salt form. (Bonded to other elements.)

When separated it is a silver-white heavy metal. It’s useful in metallurgy since even a small amount improves the workability or iron alloys. It is also good at absorbing stray neutrons and so is used in radiography and nuclear reactors.


One of gadolinium’s main uses is in compounds for MRIs. Injected into the bloodstream, it will show where blood is and is not in a scan, which helps pinpoint the location of blocked or leaking blood vessels.


What’s really cool (and kind of mind bending, at least to me) is that it goes from being magnetic to not, depending on its temperature. This is called the Curie point, and in gadolinium it’s 19 degrees C (66 F). So if you use ice water to cool down gadolinium it will stick to a magnet, only to fall off once it warms up again.


It gets its name from the mineral gadolinite. A chemist studying gadolinite saw an unknown spectral band and identified an new element. (He actually had to use a different mineral with a larger gadolinium content to extract an oxide of gadolinium.)


Later a French chemist, P.E.F. LeCoq, separated metal from oxide and (since there’d already been a hullabaloo about his possibly naming his previous find after himself-he’s a piece of work, maybe we’ll talk about him later) he named this new element after the mineral in which it had first been identified.


This mineral had been named after Johan Gadolin. (b 1760)


Describing Gadolin as the everyman of the elements: “Gadolinium must stand as the memorial for all the chemists who have struggled to free a new element from its mineral source…” Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Periodic Tales.


Johan Gadolin was the chemist who discovered the first rare earth element- yttrium. (Well, first rare earth oxide, he knew it has a new element in 1794 but couldn’t extract it.) The mineral from which he isolated yttrium was named Gadolinite in his honor.


So the element was named after the mineral which was named after him for extracting a different element from said mineral. It’s kind of a nice naming circle!


Where does the Hebrew come in?


Clerical families often took a Latinized name. Instead of looking at Latin roots, Gadolin’s grandfather gentrified their family name by taking the Hebrew word for great and modifying it to fit with Latin forms.

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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Natural Science