Saturday, September 14, 2013

Here Today, Gone Today

The press release was self-congratulatory, as it had a right to be. After all, it's not every day you create something new. And we're not just talking new, as in a new hiking boot or a new app or a new flavor of granola bar. We're talking new as in never existed before. Never. Well, once. But that was over a decade ago, and no one has been able to make it since, so a little crowing was in order.

"An international team of researchers, led by physicists from Lund University, have confirmed the existence of what is considered a new element."  Big doings, according to Dr. Dirk Rudolph, Professor at the Division of Nuclear Physics at good old Lund U in Lund, Sweden (Go, Fighting, uh, Lundites!). He and his gang were able to create an element with an atomic number 115. Best of all, it fills in a noticeable gap, nestling nicely in between flerovium (114) and livermorium (116), the two additions that made the grade just last year.

If you are like me, and your last brush with the periodic table was in high school chemistry, you might wonder what's going on. After all, wasn't the whole point of the table that the elements were the basic building blocks for everything, and everything else was made of them? If that's the case, how can you have new blocks? Aren't they just combinations of all the came before? Strike that. Let's stick with the veneer that we understand science for a brief moment, and call them what they are: not combinations, but compounds. See, Katy Perry fans, that didn't hurt, did it?

But the bottom line is that, yes, there are just 92 stable elements. However, if you screw with them, you can indeed create something new, even it lasts for a fraction of a fraction of a second. In this case, a thin film of americium (element 95) was bombarded with some calcium (element 20). The resulting clump stuck together long enough to be noticed (hence, the number 115). Actually, not even that long. The researchers deduced its existence from the pieces of debris left over, kind of like my wife knowing I made a grilled cheese sandwich when she sees the George Forman grill with some yellow stuff on it.

It raises an interesting philosophical question beyond the physical one. If you can create something only for a brief period of time, does it really exist? Yes, no doubt that for one shining instant it was tangible, and so at the very least there should a historical record of it. After all, you can say the same thing about George Lazenby as James Bond. But does that mean it merits being listed as a current member in good standing, alongside such stalwarts as carbon (element 6) and oxygen (8), the Cher and Madonna of the periodic table?
Scientists say yes. They say that once we find them, we can figure out what to do with them. The best example they give is the aforementioned americium. Discovered as a part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in 1945, it was first produced in commercial quantities and offered for sale in 1962. And now you find some in virtually every smoke detector in existence. In fact, one gram of americium is worth about $1500 and can be used in about three million detectors. So forget hoarding gold (one gram is worth about $45) or even cocaine ($150). You Fox News viewers should stuff some americium in your safe.

The point is that Professor Rudolph's team has done a good thing, advancing the state of the art. Yes, it does mean that yet again all those charts hanging on science classroom walls are out of date, and will have to be changed. But it's a small price to pay for whatever comes next, if by next you mean after atomic bombs and smoke detectors.

So raise a glass to Dirk and the guys and gals at Lund U and number 115. While it waits for a proper moniker it's going by the label of ununpentium, a corruption and combination of Greek and Latin words for the numerical name. Since the honor of bestowing the name often goes to the founders, lundinimum is a possibility. Or perhaps the good professor is hoping for dirkinium. A boy can dream, can't he?


Marc Wollin of Bedford never really understood nuclear physics. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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