365 Days of Earrings

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Niobe's Niobium

Today I wore this lovely pair of metal leaves, a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law a few years ago. I struggled to get a photo that shows their shifting balance of gold and purple. But a still photo can't do justice to these earrings.

Along with the earrings, Marian sent a card that explained the wonders of niobium, the metallic element from which they're crafted.

Niobium is element 41 on the periodic table. When I taught middle school science, one of the projects I assigned to each year's 8th grade was creating an element brochure. With about 30 students per year, I assigned elements that would be fun and interesting, or that students requested. Never once did anyone study niobium. So I had some learning to do.

 Niobium is named for Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus for whom the element just below Niobium is named. Apparently these two elements are very similar, and are often confused. Niobium was named quite late, and is still called by another name by many scientists.

Niobe is one of the most tragic figures in Greek mythology: a mother who brags about her 14 children. Her hubris results in the killing her sons by Apollo and her daughters by Artemis. Homer compared Priam, King of Troy, to Niobe after Priam lost his son Hector. Even with all of my study of the periodic table, I hadn't realized that it commemorated such human tragedy.

Niobium is often used in jewelry, I've read, as well as in making special steel alloys. People have only discovered how to use it in the last 100 years. Its ability to change color when anodized has led to many uses.

Lovely earrings, with such a rich background of mythology and metallurgy. A gift that led me to discover such a wealth of knowledge.  


jwkrumich said...

You again enter the land of John McPhee: you write of a subject that interests me and I am astonished that I am!

J-ROK said...

I have a pair of those too! We picked them out at the Farmer's Market in Salem, Oregon :)