What’s in a name. (A lot, apparently).

(As always the tl;dr is at the bottom!)

There are many things about German museums that are different from USA museums. Most German museums are staffed with people who have a PhD, making it extremely hard to work in a museum without one. Another difference is that almost all the museums in Germany are public institutions; the reverse is true in the US, where most museums are owned by private foundations.

The German and American cultures are often very similar. The differences are subtle, and often catch me unaware. The culture clash that got me the worst was simple and appeared out of nowhere: the difference between addressing someone as a professor or as a doctor when talking.

In Germany, the title “professor” is a lot higher than the title of doctor, something I didn’t realize. Each faculty (math, inorganic chemistry, geology) will only have one professor; all the other teachers go by doctor (or another title commiserate with their diploma). It is an insult to call someone a doctor when they are the professor of the faculty.

This is the opposite in the USA, where giving someone the title “Doctor” is the best you can do. You can be a professor in the US without a PhD; many people are professors with a Master’s degree. I also feel that there isn’t as much problem switching between the two. I have had professors with PhDs who went by the title doctor and professors who had PhDs who were just fine with being called professor.

Martin Luther was a professor of theology, having his doctorate in theology. I have no idea what I would call him. This was painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Martin Luther was a professor of theology, and had his doctorate. But was he a professor in the American sense or the German sense? I have no idea what I would call him.
(Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder; PD-1923)

A third difference between Germany and the USA: Germany had a nobility, and we in America really didn’t. I mean, you could probably make an argument that there was some sort of nobility at the beginning, but I know of no dukes, duchesses, or earls in modern day America. This brings us to the history!

The reasons for these differences is historical (both of these were told to me second hand, so if you know something I don’t, please tell me!). In Germany, anyone with enough money could buy a “doctor” title. This made the title of doctor common and didn’t hold a lot of weight. Because Germany had a nobility, they decided to create the Professor title, which was a title of nobility and could only be bestowed by.. someone (I figure it was someone responsible for that type of thing, or it wouldn’t be a nobility thing).

In the US, we didn’t have a nobility, so maybe that’s why we can switch the two? A slightly unrelated story: both PhDs and MDs are called Doctors, but it used to be that PhDs were considered a higher form of doctor. MDs were considered butchers, and PhDs had had to do original research.

This is a terrifying picture of medieval dentistry. So I can understand the butchers thing...
This is a terrifying picture of medieval dentistry. So I can understand the butchers thing…

I find this type of history fascinating, especially when it brings to light a cultural difference I was not aware of.

tl;dr: The Germans consider the title of Professor higher than the title of Doctor. This has led to some interesting cultural issues that I was unaware of. It’s a historical thing having to do with nobility.

Thanks for reading, be kind to each other, and see you next time!

The rare earth elements are ugly.

If you missed my first post on what the rare earth elements are, go back and read it here! Don’t worry, I’ll wait! 🙂

Source: Peggy Greb, USDA Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.
Source: Peggy Greb, USDA
Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

So the above picture are six of the rare earth elements (REE). As you can see, none of the REE are particularly pretty. This makes a classic exhibit of text-item, text-item very hard to create. No one wants to look at these minerals for more than a few minutes:

xenotim_tm chevkinit_tm bastnaesit_tm

Or this one:


Occassionally you get a pretty one with a brilliant green color, like fluocerite -ce:

© Michael Forsch, 2016. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
© Michael Forsch, 2016. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Unfortunately none of my minerals look like this. That’s why we’re going to be using a murder mystery to create a more enticing exhibit!

Thanks for reading, be kind to each other, and see you next time!

What are the rare earth elements?

The entire basis of my exhibit here in Germany is the rare earth elements. But there is always the question: what exactly are the rare earth elements? (This is a long post; you can scroll to the bottom for the tl;dr if you’d like).

The rare earth elements (REE) are 17 elements on the periodic table, usually shown at the bottom, the lanthanide series, plus scandium and yttrium from the main periodic table.


These 17 elements can further be divided into two distinct categories: the light REE and the heavy REE. The light REE are the elements with numbers 21, 57 through 64; these are known as the cerium group. The heavy REE are elements 39, 65 through 70 and are known as the yttrium group.

There are some misleading terms out there. First, “rare earth metal” is used in place of the rare earth elements, but they are not the same things. When someone uses the term rare earth metal, they are usually including elements like gold, silver, or platinum, or minerals such as coltan. Though they are all considered rare earth resources, only the 17 elements listed above are considered the rare earth elements. (There is another argument: there are really only 15 rare earth elements, the 15 found in the lanthanide series. Scandium and yttrium do not belong to this group. For reference, from here on out I am going to refer to all 17 elements when I say “the rare earth elements.”)

Finally, the biggest misleading term: none of these elements are really rare except 61, promethium. Many of them are more common than gold or platinum. Cerium is about as common as copper in the world. Due to their geologic and chemical structures, getting enough of them in the same place to be economically viable is difficult.  Think about baking: if you add a teaspoon of cinnamon to a kilo of flour, you really can’t separate the two of them again. You know the cinnamon is there, but getting it out is extremely difficult.

Bear with me through the chemistry for a second: the lanthanide series on the bottom has what’s known as “lanthanide contraction,” and this affects why the REE are found where they are. Usually, an increase in the atomic number results in an increase in atomic radii; with the REE this is not the case. Each larger atom in the list has a smaller radius then the ones before it, which also helps increase the weight density of the atom. This is caused by problems with the outer electron shell, 4f. (This all gets very technical very quickly. I encourage you to look it up on Wikipedia for a better explanation). Scandium follows the same pattern, as does yttrium.

In a nutshell: The REE like to hang together and are often found either grouped by the light or heavy REE in the ground.

This brings us to the actual question: so what?

The REE are needed in EVERY form of modern day life. They act a lot like vitamins, helping other elements work more efficiently, faster, and stronger. Without them, your screens wouldn’t have beautiful reds (europium) or greens (terbium) when you binge-watch Netflix. Many light bulbs now contain a REE of some kind. Your cellphone has at least 7 of them (the violet ones):

Source: www.compoundchem.com
Source: http://www.compoundchem.com

You find the REE in every type of green energy too. The Prius has over 10 kilograms of lanthanum in it’s battery and a kilogram of neodymium in the motor. A large windmill has over 500 kilograms (so over 1000 pounds) of REE.

© Eli Patten 2016, all rights reserved. Used with permission. There are over 40 pounds of rare earth element in this picture in the Priuses alone!
© Eli Patten 2016, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
There are over 40 kilograms of rare earth element in this picture. And that’s just the Prius-es!

REE are also used a lot in medical purposes, like xray, PET scans, and mobile imaging. The four harddrives that I have backing up my copies of this blog all use REE in the magnets in the harddrive. Without the REE, your MP3 player would be more like a walkman, and there wouldn’t be anything like the iPod Nano. The REE currently power our daily lives.

tl;dr The REE are 17 elements on the periodic table that like to hang out together. They are what let us have small harddrives and show you greens and reds when you binge watch Netflix. They aren’t really rare, just hard to find in mineable quantities. Without them, we wouldn’t have electric cars or those huge windmills, not to mention any iProduct.

Next up: What do the REE look like?


Hi, and welcome to my blog!

My name is Laura and I currently live in Germany, where I work as a curator at terra mineralia, a rock and gem museum in Freiberg, a town in Saxony, Germany. This blog is my attempt to chronicle not only what I am doing for the project (see the FAQ for more) but also to share this with my community (hi guys!), with the hope that it better explains what I do.

My project is funded by the International Museum Fellowship Programme of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, an organization that promotes and aids international collaboration in museums. My work started on May 1, 2016. The exhibit opens on April 12th, 2017 and will run through August 2017. My grant will end on Halloween, 2017.

I should also mention why I chose the name “the Binomial Curator.” Most people think of a binomial as a mathematical name for a term with two components, but it is also a type of conjunction. In grammar, a binomial is when there are two words (most often nouns) joined together, and order is usually pretty consistent:

Cease and Desist
Rock and Roll
Knife and Fork
Night and Day

There are German binomial pairs too:

Freiheit und Gleichheit
Recht und Ordnung
Sturm und Drang
Tag und Nacht

Because I live and work in two cultures and in two languages (and occassionally confuse both of them together), I really liked this name. And I think it sounds cool!

With this blog I hope to catalog the process of the exhibit. I’ve been here for 4 months already, so the first posts are going to be playing catch up with what has happend already. Hopefully I’ll be up to date soon, bringing us to the present time and what we are working on. I’m aiming to post once a week on topics related to my work here. Fingers crossed!

Be kind to each other and until next time!