Our Ephemeral Periodic Table

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, better known by its acronym IUPAC, has announced that four new elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 will receive their permanent seats at the Periodic Table, thereby completing the heretofore incomplete seventh row. Things have sure changed since Dmitri Mendeleev and his contemporaries developed the Periodic Table with only a mere handful of 60 elements. Of course, those elements had names. These four new elements, on the other hand, have temporary placeholder names: “Baby Boy” 113 is named “Ununtrium,” pronounced “un-un-trium” for its atomic number 113. “Ununpentium” is likewise the temporary name for 115, 117 is “Ununseptium,” and element 118, well, you get the picture (HINT: it has an “oct-” in its name).

Before the other elements welcome them in with a slap on the back and a slew of “what took you so long?” queries, let’s understand how the scientific process goes from no element to new element to named element. First off, these four elements were synthesized in large particle accelerators, which means that they were made by smashing and fusing smaller atoms together. Scientists don’t actually “see” these new elements, but extrapolate their fleeting existence from their decay products. These elements are so “superheavy,” that they decay within thousandths of a second after they are formed into smaller, more stable elements.

But before a particle physicist can run half-naked through the streets yelling “Eureka!” at his or her monumental discovery, the scientific machine has to kick in high gear, because an element’s existence must be confirmed by two other laboratories before being recognized and placed on the Periodic Table. This process gives us a tangible glimpse into the nature of scientific discovery.

Most significantly, science is much more a process that results in a body of knowledge, —> Read More