New Element Discovered! But Don't Ask About Its Name

By Smriti Rao | April 6, 2010 5:39 pm

element-117-279x300A little square that has been left blank on the periodic table for all these years might finally be filled in. A team of American and Russian scientists have just reported the synthesis of a brand new element–element 117. Says study coauthor Dawn Shaughnessy: “For a chemist, it’s so fundamentally cool” to fill a square in that table [The New York Times].

If other scientists confirm the discovery, the still-unnamed element will take its place between elements 116 and 118, both of which have already been tracked down. A paper about element 117 will soon be published in Physical Review Letters, and scientists say the new element appears to point the way toward a brew of still more massive elements with chemical properties no one can predict [The New York Times].

Element 117 was born in a particle accelerator in Russia, where the scientists smashed together calcium-48 — an isotope with 20 protons and 28 neutrons — and berkelium-249, which has 97 protons and 152 neutrons. The collisions spit out either three or four neutrons, creating two different isotopes of an element with 117 protons [Science News].

The new element 117, takes it place between two superheavy elements that scientists know to be very radioactive and that decay almost instantly. But many researchers think it is possible that even heavier elements may occupy an “island of stability” in which superheavy atoms stick around for a while [Science News]. If this theory holds up, scientists say, the work could generate an array of strange new materials with as yet unimagined scientific and practical uses [New York Times].

The excitement continues for the scientists who toiled to synthesize the new element, as they wait to hear what it will be named. Usually, a new element is named after someone or someplace involved in the research. The element berekelium, which was used in the experiment, was named after the University of California at Berkeley, where it was first synthesized, while element 112 was just recently named Copernicium in honor of the 16th century scientist Nicholas Copernicus.

So far, the scientists have been exceptionally mum about what the element might be called. Yuri Oganessian, a nuclear physicist at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and the lead author on the paper, said in an e-mail message: “Naming elements is a serious question; in fact…This takes years” [New York Times]. His silence is reinforced by team member Shaughnessy, who was equally cagey about possible names for the new element: “We’ve never discussed names because it’s sort of like bad karma…It’s like talking about a no hitter during the no hitter. We’ve never spoken of it aloud” [New York Times].

Till the element is confirmed and it takes its formal place on the periodic table, scientists say it shall simply be referred to as element 117–or by the Latin reference to its number, ununseptium.

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: Physicists Extend the Periodic Table
DISCOVER: 19: Two New Elements Discovered
DISCOVER: 10 Obscure Elements That Are More Important Than You’d Think



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