Weighing in at more than 103 atomic units, the superheavy elements help physicists explore freaky concepts like magic numbers and the island of stability, helping us understand why nature contains only a finite number of elements. But so far, all superheavy atoms have only been made synthetically by smashing nuclei together and hoping they stick. All of these new elements are pretty much useless because they decay in a few seconds at most.
But today, the physics arXiv blog reports on a possible discovery (pdf) of stable, naturally occurring superheavy nuclei, found lying around in a pile of thorium. When researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dug through with their mass spectrometer, they discovered a mysterious element with an atomic weight of 292, an atomic number of about 122, and a half-life greater than 100 million years.
The blog post notes that the team “has been diligent in attempting to exclude alternative explanations,” but it’s important to point out that papers in the arXiv system have not yet been peer-reviewed. And various knowledgable commentershave already expressed significantly reservations about the techniques and the analysis. Currently, plutonium—with an atomic number of 94—is the heaviest known naturally occurring element, so 28 protons up is a friggin’ giant jump.
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