A Sophomoric Prank Lurks on the Periodic Table
Check out the abbreviation for plutonium
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 6, 2015 1:36 PM CST
   (shutterstock)

(Newser) – There’s nothing funny about plutonium. After all, it’s the stuff that makes nuclear weapons go boom. Nonetheless, the man credited with discovering the element named for the dwarf planet Pluto did manage to use the occasion to sneak a little levity onto the periodic table of elements, National Geographic reports. Rather than choosing the obvious abbreviation of "Pl" for plutonium, Berkeley chemist Glenn Seaborg "suggested Pu, like the words a child would exclaim, 'Pee-yoo!' when smelling something bad," according to an account in Los Alamos Science. Seaborg and his team discovered plutonium between 1940 and 1941, per Live Science, but the discovery was kept under wraps until WWII ended. Once it did, however, Seaborg submitted the name, which a naming committee inexplicably accepted "without a word," wrote two colleagues.

Scientists have a reputation for being stuffy. But, as "Pu" demonstrates, the quest for knowledge and the search for laughs are not mutually exclusive. Two more cases:

  • On April 1, 1976, per the Guardian, British astronomer Patrick Moore told television audiences that a "unique astronomical event" would occur at 9:47am. The Earth’s gravity would be momentarily reduced, and anyone who jumped at that moment would experience a floating sensation. Plenty of people reportedly bought the April Fool’s Day gag.
  • Famed physicist Richard Feynman, while working to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1940s, once discovered the combination to a colleague’s filing cabinets, per Real Clear Science. He left notes in the filing cabinet, resulting in his colleague fearing that the secrets of the atomic bomb had been compromised.
(This bonsai tree survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.)