Category: "Chemistry"


June 3rd, 2010 — posted by Don

The Russian word for copper is медь. Just as in English it is mostly used in the singular. It is a feminine third-declension noun:


Some sample sentences:

В США медь добывают больше всего в Аризоне. In the USA copper is mostly produced in Arizona.
Из меди делают проволоку, водопроводные трубы и ювелирные изделия. Wire, plumbing pipe and jewelry are made from copper.
Бронза — это смесь олова с медью. Bronze is a mix of tin and copper.
Третьим металлом, который обрабатывал человек, была медь, потому что она плавится при относительно низкой температуре, и сам металл довольно легко куётся в разные формы. The third metal worked by man was copper because it has a relatively low melting point and the metal itself can be easily formed into various shapes.

You can make an adjective out of this noun by adding -ный to the stem:

— Я в последнее время очень быстро устаю.
— Ты должен носить медные браслеты. Они балансируют энергетику организма.
— Господи, какая ты наивная.
“Recently I've been getting tired very quickly.”
“You should wear copper bracelets. The even out the body's energetic field.”
“Good Lord, you are so naive.”
Почти всю электрическую сеть составляет медная проволока. Almost all of the electrical wiring is made up of copper wires.

There is a famous poem by Pushkin called Медный всадник, which literally means “the copper horseman.” Oddly enough, in this one instance we translate the title as “The Bronze Horseman.”


May 6th, 2010 — posted by Don

The Russian word for mercury, the element, is ртуть, which is a feminine third-declension noun. The word mostly occurs in the singular:

Image from Wikipedia


The place most of us used to encounter mercury was in thermometers:

В медицинском термометре объём ртути увеличивается и уменьшается при изменении температуры окружающей среды. (adapted from source) In a medical thermometer the volume of mercury increases and decreases as the temperature of the surrounding environment changes.

Nowadays mercury thermometers are being replaced by digital thermometers that have no mercury, so we mostly encounter the word in high school chemistry classes in the periodic table of the elements. Its symbol is Hg, which is taken from the Latin word Hydrargyrum, which is based on the Greek roots ὑδρ- ‘water’ and ἀργυρ- ‘silver’:

Ртуть — элемент шестого периода периодической системы химических элементов Д. И. Менделеева, с атомным номером 80. (adapted from source) Mercury is an element of the sixth period of Mendeleev's periodic table of the elements; its atomic number is eighty.

I remember allowing a small quantity of mercury to roll around in my hand as a kid. Despite how beautiful it was, that really wasn't a good idea:

Пары ртути, а также металлическая ртуть очень ядовиты, могут вызвать тяжёлое отравление. (adapted from source) Mercury vapors and metallic mercury are very toxic and can cause serious poisoning.

By the way, if you are in the mood to explore the elements in Russian, there is a marvelous interactive periodic table of the elements available at


March 29th, 2010 — posted by Don

Водород is the Russian word for hydrogen. The English word is made up of Greek roots where ὑδρο- (hydro-) means ‘water’ and γεν- (gen-) means ‘‘bring forth/become,” thus hydrogen means “the substance that forms water.” Notice that the Russian word is formed similarly: the root вод- means ‘water’ and the root род- means “give birth to”; thus the Russian words also means “the substance that forms water.” It is not a coincidence that these words have a similar structure. When one language models a new word by following the structure of the word in another language but subsitutes its own roots, that word is called a calque. The use of calques in a language is a very sensible way to build new words. A Russian child can learn the word водород and immediately see a connection between the word and the substance ‘water.’ An English speaking child will most likely never see the connection between hydrogen and water unless he takes a class on English roots or studies Greek.

Just as in English, водород is usually only used in the singular; we rarely say ‘hydrogens.’ It declines perfectly regularly:


Let's explore some sample sentences:

Молекула воды состоит из двух атомов водорода и одного атома кислорода. A molecule of water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.
Молекулу воды составляют два атома водорода и один атом кислорода. A molecule of water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.
Молекулы, главные состявляющие которых водород и углерод, называются органическими молекулами. Molecules whose main components are hydrogen and carbon are called organic molecules.¹
Самая простая органическая молекула — метан. Его составляют один атом углерода и четыре атома водорода. The simplest organic molecule is methane. It is made of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.

If you see a diagram of methane in a Russian textbook, you will something like this:

Notice that Latin letters are used, not Cyrillic letters. That's an international convention, which means that when you begin reading Russian chemistry articles, you will be able to understand the diagrams easily, although of course you will still have to learn the Russian names of the elements to discuss them intelligently.

Henry Cavendish is usually credited as first identifying hydrogen as a discrete substance in 1766 (source). Before that, mankind rarely saw the substance in its pure gaseous form on Earth. In the eighteen hundreds it was discovered in the sun and other stars by its spectral signature. This was a great shock. This substance, whose gaseous form was completely outside the day-to-day experience of most ordinary human beings, turned out to be the most common form of matter in the universe.² This strange truth reminds me of a line from the song Fireflies: “Everything is never as it seems.”³ At every moment of every day we should remember that everything is different from what it appears to be, whether the seeming solidity of the table in front of us or the blueness of the sky or the unexpected short-temper of our neighbor. In relating to inanimate things, this should give us a sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of physical existence. In relating to living beings, it should give us a sense of graciousness and compassion toward the occasional quirks of others since we never truly know the pains that underlie them. In both cases we can be reminded of the incredible privilege of being alive and conscious at this moment.

¹ Not all organic molecules necessarily have hydrogen. I'm fudging for the sake of this blog entry.

² Nowadays some scientists posit that the majority of the universe's mass may be in dark matter, which has a corollary that hydrogen may not be the most abundant substance in the universe. Nota bene: even those who are expert in their subject may have to radically shift their views on subjects they know well, thus we should all hold our opinions with an easy grace, open to change.

³ The most common way to say this in English is “Nothing is ever as it seems.” Adam Young showed a beautiful artistic touch when he rephrased it in this song.