Regular readers are familiar with the occasional pop quizzes I throw out. I try to make them fun and a little bit challenging but not too difficult because nothing annoys me more than trying to do a crossword puzzle and halfway through feeling like the antediluvian legal scholar who created it decided no one would make it past 42-across and just started making up words and I want to hunt him down and beat him with a dictionary.
Anyway I got an idea for a pop quiz while reading Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, which is a really cool book about the periodic table and the elements that comprise it. It’s not a heavy scientific text but full of interesting stories like how in 1915 the Germans covertly took over a Colorado molybdenum mine which gave them an advantage in World War I, but that’s another story.
And then I started writing the quiz down and realized I was insane. It relied on some pretty rarefied knowledge and the clues were such a stretch I think even most chemists would find it tougher than tungsten. The answers are all scientists who aren’t household names, with one exception. Think bushy hair and moustache and sarcastic synonym for “smart person”.
They are also all scientists who’ve had elements named after them which narrows it down but they’re mostly still obscure and to make it even worse all my puns are a real stretch. And this may surprise some of the laity but the naming of elements can actually be controversial. Dmitri Mendeleev created the first modern periodic table and realized there were a lot of undiscovered elements to fill the spaces. He named the gap elements things like “ekaaluminum”. “Eka” is Sanskrit for “one” and was the element Mendeleev predicted would sit under aluminum on the periodic table. He was right about there being such an element but the scientist who discovered it named it gallium. When Marie Curie discovered polonium in 1911 she named it in honor of her home country, Poland, which was not at the time a bona fide country and fighting Germany for independence. Now while the naming is less political scientists still rush for naming rights and some elements have gone unnamed for years while who really found them first is sorted out.
Still with me? Here’s the quiz. Get one or two and you can feel really good about yourself. Get more than half and you can non-sarcastically call yourself a smart person. Get zero and you get the grand prize: you can hunt me down and beat me with a dictionary.
Name the scientist suggested by the following puns.
1. He would prefer to wade.
Additional clues: called the “father of nuclear physics”, he won the Nobel Prize in 1908
2. Hard common vowel.
Additional clues: an Italian physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project
3. Ocean-going Star Trek villain.
Additional clues: the only living person to have an element named after him he discovered or helped discover ten elements
4. Heal him.
Additional clues: the only woman to have an element named after her (so far), she discovered both polonium and radium
5. One big mug.
Additional clues: a real smart person with a reputation for absent-mindedness. Think bushy hair and moustache.
6. Edict wash.
Additional clues: invented the cyclotron
7. Repair Bulgarian currency.
Additional clues: created the periodic table and predicted the discovery of many additional elements
This clue is also so far out if you get it without the additional clues you are either a science historian, a chemist, or are working in the wrong field
8. Doesn’t ring.
Additional clues: has a prestigious set of prizes named after him and invented dynamite
9. Hire Hunger Games star.
Additional clues: German scientist (oh, like that narrows it down) who discovered X-rays
10. A real sleeper.
Additional clues: Danish scientist who created a popular atomic model.
And all this is really an excuse to share Tom Lehrer’s The Elements. If you’ve all been paying attention you’ll know that since he wrote it the news of a few new elements has come to Harvard.