Americium poem by Janet Kuypers


Janet Kuypers

from the “ Periodic Table of Poetry” series

When I heard there was an element
called Americium,
I thought,
what scientist felt possessed
to name an element
after the United States of America?
I mean,
was it discovered during a war effort
when everyone rallied with national spirit?
Was it a World War Two effort
against the element Germanium
named after Germania
(even though that element was not named
for Hitler’s desire to create
the perfect thousand year empire)?
I can’t believe the decision
to name an element Americium
was based on the boo-rah mentality,
go fight win, U.S.A., U.S.A….
I mean, is the actual element
somehow explicitly related to America?

Okay, fine, I will look on line for information.
Let me first check dictionary dot com
before Google or Wikipedia
for information about Americium…
But before I scrolled down to the definition
I saw the speaker icon,
so I could hear the computer-generated voice
say Americium for me…
Oh, Ah-mer-EE-cee-um.
Not Uh-MARE-ick-ee-um. Oops.
But the definition says Americium
is the products of high-energy helium bombardment
of uranium and plutonium.
Wow. I’m really going to have to research this,
and maybe I can dispel the World War Two links
I was apparently making up for this element.

Wait a minute, Americium was discovered
in 1944, but the discovery was kept secret
and only released to the public in November 1945.
(Okay, this doesn’t help my anti-Hitler case…)
Let’s see… Americium was first identified
at the University of California, Berkeley,
and it was chemically identified in Argonne Lab
at the University of Chicago. Okay,
so it was discovered in America, but
in the Periodic Table, Americium falls
right next to it’s twin lanthanide element europium;
so thus by analogy, they named this element
after another continent, America.

Hmmm, fun little story. But Americium
was primarily used in nuclear tests
conducted between 1945 and 1980,
as well as at sites like the Chernobyl disaster.
(Oh, so we go from Germany as our emeny
to the Soviet Union as our enemy,
because the enemy of your enemy
is not necessarily your friend.)
And elevated levels of Americium
were also at the crash site of a US B-52 bomber
which carried four hydrogen bombs
in 1968 in Greenland.

But us Americans have to come up
with more practical appplications
for Americium than nuclear testing…
And that’s when I learnbed
that the silvery-white element
(which is soft and malleable,
and tarnishes in the air)
has isotopes that are used in
smoke detectors.
So an element that can help kill
can also help save people’s lives.
Well, I guess in a way
that sounds like America, too.