Make room at the periodic table: A new is element is born

“We just last month finished altering our tables,” says Lisabeth Hoffman. “And now. . . ”

And now? Scientists, rejoice.

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Hoffman is a chemist who works for Sargent-Welch, a 150-year-old company that sells educational materials out of Buffalo. The tables in question are periodic tables. Which now must be altered, because this week, Swedish scientists announced the confirmation of a decade-old Russian discovery.

Namely: There is a new element, almost.

The discovery of a new element is like the discovery of a new planet. It changes nothing about the way we live our lives but causes perceptions of the world to expand, just a little, 115 protons worth, the size of this new proposed element.

Commence the paperwork! Revise the chemistry textbooks. Launch the naming discussions and cross-check options with a list of available abbreviations. Element 115 is the first possible addition to the periodic table since 2012’s twofer: flerovium (114) and livermorium (116), which caused Sargent-Welch to make its last round of additions.

“This superheavy element business is truly special in our research field,” writes nuclear physicist Dirk Rudolph via e-mail. Rudolph is a professor at Sweden’s Lund University, the institution claiming the verification of the element. He has been asked whether the isolation of Element 115 is a career pinnacle. “Career pinnacle!?” the nuclear physicist writes back. “You mean career height!?”

At least in terms of publicity, he explains. The periodic table excites the public in ways that other complicated scientific discoveries might not. It is, after all, the only chart that contains literally everything in the universe, broken down into tidy abbreviations.

The place-holder moniker for Element 115 is ununpentium (which roughly translates to “115” in Latin and Greek), and it will remain thusly named until the element’s worthiness is confirmed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics — an endeavor that is now set to begin. “The review process is painfully and embarrassingly slow,” Paul Karol, the chair of IUPAC’s Joint Working Party for the Discovery of New Elements, writes in an e-mail. “Mostly because a number of publications have to be studied with intense concentration since they are invariably and understandably painted in supportive verbiage.”

Which brings up an interesting point in modern elemental science. The elements discovered in modern times are not ones you can see and hold, like gold or iron. They don’t naturally occur on Earth. The newly discovered elements are birthed and isolated in laboratories, for seconds at a time, before vanishing again.

“The only way we even know they exist is that we have detectors that have evidence for them,” explains Sam Kean, whose book “The Disappearing Spoon” chronicles the history of the periodic table. “In some sense, they’re ones and zeros on the computer somewhere — we have to trust the computer that [the elements] are there.”

This explains how it was possible for a team of Russian and American scientists to locate the element in 2004, and then for no one else to find it since. Ununpentium and faith are the evidence of things unseen.

Once the IUPAC and IUPAP verify ununpentium’s validity, naming rights will go to whoever is determined to be the discoverer, a procedure that has historically grown complicated.

In the 1960s, for example, a major scientific controversy broke out over the discovering and naming of elements 104, 105 and 106, which the United States and the Soviet Union both laid claim to. The Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, declared elements 104 and 105 “kurchatovium” and “nielsbohrium” after physicist Niels Bohr (who, one must note, was Danish). American scientists at Berkeley insisted that the same elements be called “rutherfordium” after Ernest Rutherford (New Zealand-born) and “hahnium” after German scientist Otto Hahn.

Decades passed. The U.S.S.R. fell. The Cold War ended. The controversy dragged on. The debates became known as the Transfermium Wars. Element 106 acquired its own sideshow when the name suggested by Americans, “seaborgium,” referred to living chemist Glenn Seaborg, when naming custom had dictated only posthumous homages.

Eventually, in the 1990s, the IUPAC recommended that 104 be named rutherfordium, which it was, and that 105 be named “dubnium,” which it was. The Americans eventually earned the right for Glenn Seaborg to be Element 106, and before his death in 1999, he would occasionally autograph tiles of the periodic table, his neat signature next to the symbol, Sg.

But on and on, we struggle to be remembered in the annals of science, we harbor faith in things proved but invisible, we organize our world into small, two-dimensional boxes (Cu, Hg, Fe) that are really as large as the universe and sometimes as inexplicable.

The universe grows. So does the periodic table. A century ago, at the birth of radioactivity, uranium was thought to be the ultimate discovery, the final element.

“There is kind of a question of how many more elements we’re going to get,” Kean says. The recent discoveries have been so laborious and so time-consuming. There may come a point at which our scientific abilities are outstripped by nature, at which we have discovered as much as we can about the building blocks of matter.

And what would that final element be called, Kean wonders.

“Ultimatium? Unobtainium?”

Foreverium. And everium.

 
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