This element is a rare metal that has many characteristics similar to tantalum and the two always appear together. In fact they are so similar, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. It was first discovered in 1734 and named columbium by Connecticut governor John Winthrop the Younger. However, because chemists of the time were unable to isolate it from tantalum, they decided it wasn’t an element after all. It was rediscovered in 1844 by Heinrich Rose. Apparently Rose must have been feeling puckish the day he officially named this element, as he decided to change the name from columbium to niobium — making niobium and its close relative tantalum the only father-daughter combination on the periodic table.

In junior high, I developed a fascination with Greek and Roman mythology that continues to this day. I don’t know why because these stories are pretty ghastly. The gods are not nice, people.

The myth of Niobe is particularly beastly. She was the daughter of Tantalus and queen of Thebes. She was a beautiful, proud and fecund woman who you would think would have know better after what happened to her father. At a celebration to honor the demigoddess Lantona, mother of gods Apollo and Diana, she sashayed in to the temple and announced that people were wasting their time worshiping such a weak goddess. Wasn’t she more beautiful? Wasn’t she richer? Wasn’t she more fertile? After all, she had seven sons and seven daughters instead of only one. Why were they wasting their time worshiping such a puny little person? Apparently the Thebans couldn’t think of a good reason so they left the temple with the ceremony unfinished.

Of course, the gods did what the gods do — they smote her. Each of her children died a horrible death at the hands of Apollo and Diana, until Niobe desolate and immobile with grief, turned to stone.

The moral of the story is, don’t mess with the gods. I’m just saying.

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