Daily Archives: February 21, 2010

pitchblende

I sang in an excellent concert this evening, Verdi’s Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (hence my presence), conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. This word would thus seem appropriate.

What? It’s not about blending pitches? Well, I knew that, actually. It’s not some move or measurement in baseball, either. And while the p, b, and d are reminiscent of musical notes (two of them backwards), I don’t find the word euphonious, though its central consonant cluster does remind me of some words from when I used to sing with a choir that did music from the Republic of Georgia. In fact, one would expect its association with music to be mainly with rock music. I don’t say that because there have been at least two bands named after it – Pitchblende, a 1990s American art-punk band, and Pitchblend, a 2000s British alternative rock band. No, I say it because pitchblende is a rock.

Pitchblende is a compound word, just as it appears to be, and entirely from Germanic roots. The pitch is the same pitch as the sticky black tarry stuff (unrelated to the other pitch, which has evolved to refer to inclination, tone, etc., as a noun and throwing, etc., as a verb). The colour of pitchblende is very dark, just like pitch, and just like the mood in a requiem. The blende is misleading, which is apposite given that it basically means “misleading” – its source is a Germanic verb blenden, “deceive”, and it is used of ores that look like something useful but aren’t. Sort of like the e on the end of it, which not only is silent but does not even affect the quality of the preceding vowel. Pitchblende was useless at the time it was named. That’s because nobody had a use for uranium at the time. Pitchblende, you see, is an older name for uraninite.

But, while pitchblende is uranium oxide, it also has some other things in it as a product of the inevitable decay of uranium – which is like the inevitable decay of the flesh (libera me, domine), but uranium isotopes do nothing but decay, half-life through half-life (is that an asymptote to morte æterna?). One of the products of that decay is helium, first found on earth in this rock, though it didn’t make it light. Any light, in fact, is more likely to come from the glow of radium if you extract it from the ore: pitchblende is also the rock in which Marie Curie discovered radium.

Which is why miners in the Joachimsthal* mines, where Curie got her pitchblende, had unusually high rates of cancer. But their excess mortality is also not why pitchblende is an appropriate word for my concert this evening. It’s because of the radioactivity. The Verdi concert will have its own radio activity, you see: on CBC 2′s Choral Concert on the morning of April 18 (2010). It’s really worth a listen – Noseda is a fantastic conductor.

*Joachimsthal is where silver coins were minted in the 16th century that came to be called Joachimsthalers, and then thalers for short, which mutated to dollars. Joachimsthal is now called Jáchymov, because it is now in the Czech Republic. So from coins it has passed to Czechs. But they still get credit!

Thanks to Alan Yoshioka for suggesting pitchblende.