Heavy Metal

629634-periodic-table

As you may have seen, scientists have now confirmed the existence of element 115, temporarily (and amusingly) named ununpentium.  If you haven’t heard, which wouldn’t be surprising since it doesn’t involve twerking, socialism, gun control/violence, or chemical weapons, then behold this article to find out more.

It’s not at all surprising that 115 exists.  After all, the atomic Tetris game that is the Periodic Table, created by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869 (a Russian…coincidence?), pretty much guarantees that an element would be found there.  Indeed, 114 and 116 had already been discovered, long enough ago that have “real” names: flerovium and livermorium.  Personally, I liked ununquadrium and ununhexium, but that’s just me.

So, the question is why do this?  Why spend the time to find something that is most likely already there and extremely unstable?  After all, these experiments are costly and time-consuming.  The original experiment that was performed to discover 115 in the first place involved bombarding an americium target (LOL element names) with energized calcium nuclei for a solid month!  During this process, they discovered 4 atoms of 115, a fact they only knew due to the radiation it gave off as it decayed since the lifetime of these atoms is measured tens of milliseconds.

The simple answer: because…SCIENCE!

You’ve no doubt heard Sir Edmund Hilary’s famous quote when asked why climb Everest: “Because it’s there.”  Finding 115 is kind of like that.

There you are, some mad scientist in an underground bunker, looking at your periodic table.  Your OCD keeps you fixated on the missing square between 114 and 116.  You can’t stop staring.  You MUST fill in the hole.

Now, the actual discovery wasn’t that ridiculous, but it highlights the essence of science, that it is a process to answer questions about Nature.  Science can pretty much be boiled down to  the following: “I wonder if X?”, experiment, “Yes/No”.  Simple asking the question “Does element 115 exist?” begs science to answer.

The complex answer: because discovering an element is the ultimate form of creativity

Think about it.  Human beings have an innate creative impulse.  We developed our brains over the eons so that we could build tools and structures of ever-increasing complexity.  Well, nuclear physics is the ultimate Erector Set.

Everything in the universe is constructed from 100-some-odd elements on the Periodic Table.  Take eleven protons, mix them with a few neutrons and you get sodium, a light, silver-colored metal.  Take 17 more protons, throw in a few more neutrons, and you get chlorine, a wispy, corrosive, green gas.  But, take those two Lego bricks and snap them together and you get table salt, sodium chloride.  Snap sodium together with fluorine instead, the element just above chlorine on the table, and you get sodium fluoride, the key ingredient in toothpaste.  Add a couple of extra neutrons to that fluorine and make it a different isotope and now you have the dye they use in a PET scan.  You can build anything with the right combination of atoms.  So, who wouldn’t want to add a new piece to the toybox?  It would be like a painter coming up with a hitherto unknown color and painting with it.  Which brings me to the most popular reason…

The capitalist answer: with a new element, we could make new things

Most of the super-heavy elements, everything past uranium on the table, are unstable and disintegrate in a matter of hours, if not seconds.  Needless to say, a material that turns into something else in a few seconds isn’t very useful.  These heavy atoms are unstable because of the immense energy that is required to hold their nuclei together.  They are simply too large to hold themselves together and they break apart spontaneously, or sometimes due to collisions, into smaller, lighter elements.

There is a, however, a theoretical expectation of something called the “island of stability”, a part of the periodic table where super-heavy elements are symmetric and efficient enough to last for days, even years, rather than seconds.  This “island” is expected to appear around element 120, unbinilium (I love these names).  So, scientists keep pushing the envelope to reach this stable region.

Who cares?  So what if you can make a bar of unbinilium that lasts longer than the Sun?  The reason to care is that we have no idea what kind of fantastic material properties compounds of these new elements could have.  Take for example the so-called “noble gases”; they are in the column on the far right of the table, things like neon and argon.  For a long time, they were thought to be completely inert (the term noble gas comes from the idea that they were too aloof to hang out with the other elements) and didn’t form compounds with anything.  However, thanks to the relentless process of science, compounds involving them were form and are very useful.  Xenic acid, for instance, is a dissolved compound of the noble gas xenon that is a fantastic oxidizing agent (essentially, a very powerful cleaner and disinfectant).  It has the benefit that, when it reacts with material, it doesn’t contaminate the sample since xenon itself is non-reactive.  This makes it ideal for situations like creating high-end electronics where contamination would ruin the device.

If we could synthesize compounds of new super-heavy elements, we may be able to create new super-strong materials to build with, new materials for medical imaging and research, new fuels to use in the reactors of the future.  New types of material for the next generation of permanent magnets to power electric vehicles.  We really have no idea.  No one could have predicted how the discovery of the properties of silicon change humanity, who’s to say there isn’t a better, more amazing version of silicon out there? (Maybe 117, since it is in a position to be a semi-metal, like silicon…)  Who knows!

That’s why discovering element 115 is important, because discovering new things and learning how to harness them (for better or worse) is what we humans do.  Plus, it’s just awesome…

2 thoughts on “Heavy Metal”

  1. Love this! No wonder you’re a teacher, your metaphors are so entertaining that we are forced to read on for our own amusement and, ( coincidentally?) our education. I love the names too, see, scientists do have a sense of humor.

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