Monday, May 14, 2012

Element 119 - Turning a Line (The Economist)

I flipped to the Science and Technology section of The Economist this week to find an article about the periodic table. What fun! Turning a line can be found here.

The title is appropriate because the article discusses the pending discovery of a new element on the periodic table. Unlike any other new element made in the laboratory, this element actually adds a new row to the bottom of the table. This has never happened before because there are elements in all existing rows that can be found in nature. It was not until 1940 that transuranic elements began to be added to the seventh row of the periodic table. At the time they were discovered, these elements existed only momentarily in a laboratory and would quickly radioactively decompose.

This is a pleasant article discussing the introduction of something entirely new in chemistry- another shell of electrons surrounding the nucleus at a distance never before realized. I wonder what the shape of that shell might be visually?

One comment near the end made me laugh. "That will be a feather in GSI's cap in its friendly competition with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California..."  Friendly competition? Doesn't this author remember the 2001 fiasco with Victor Ninov and element 118? That situation illustrated that the rivalry between labs is anything BUT friendly. Victor Ninov was hired because he successfully worked at GSI and discovered 110, 111, and 112. Berkeley hired him to show up their rivals (GSI) that they were smarter, quicker and had not lost their edge. They were sheepish and ashamed they had missed out on discovery of the most recent three transuranic elements.  So they hired their rival who then forged data in an attempt to beat GSI to the discovery of element 118.

There is a book that describes the fiasco quite well. It is called The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. The book was just okay overall but the chapter about Victor Ninov and element 118 made it worth reading. Fascinating story. And- something the author of this article in The Economist should really check out to be a bit more accurate next time.

A friendly competition? Anything but.....


  1. Anonymous8:05 PM

    There is also a chapter in a book called, When Science Goes Wrong, by Simon Le Vay, in which the author actually interviewed the hapless Ninov sometime after the fiasco.

    Eric Scerri

    author of A Very Short Introduction to The Periodic Table, 2011.

  2. I'll have to check that out. THanks for the tip.

  3. I just put that book on my wish list. Loooks good. Maybe I'll run into you here in southern California sometime.