When I took high school chemistry in the late ’50s, the classroom/lab featured a large colorful chart of the periodic table of elements which hung over the blackboard at the front of the room. It featured an arrangement of the chemical elements, ordered by their atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus), electron configurations, and recurring chemical properties.
We learned the symbols for the basic elements like iron (Fe), copper (Cu), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), and a few that were more difficult to remember like silver (Ag), gold (Au), and tungsten (W). The periodic table displayed the 94 elements then known to exist, but we were told to expect a few more discoveries in the future.
Well, the future is now. We’re up to 118 elements. So, throw out the old periodic tables and start drafting a new more complete version including the 24 new elements.
Scientists have announced that four recently discovered substances are joining the periodic table of the elements, filling in key blank spots in chemistry’s official compendium of the basic building blocks of the universe. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which verified their existence, has announced the entry of the four elements to the periodic table, the first since 2011.
These four “super-heavy” elements are known by temporary names based on the number of protons each contains in its nucleus: ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium, which are designated with atomic numbers of 113, 115, 117 and 118. Certainly, not the catchiest names for the newborn elements, but their discoverers now have the privilege of proposing a permanent name and symbol for each. What a dream opportunity of a lifetime for those scientists. They are sure to come up with some really sexy names like protactinium (Pa-91), or berkelium (Bk-97), or my personal favorite, ytterbium (Yb-70).
The researchers obviously have considerable leeway in conceiving names for these new elements. International rules allow them to be based on mythological creatures, a mineral, a scientist, or a place, but the international governing body has the final say in approving them. The most recent entrant to the periodic table was Element 112, formally named copernicium to honor Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
The discovery of a new element is like the discovery of a new planet. It changes nothing about the way we live our lives but causes perceptions of the world to expand, just a little, 118 protons worth, the size of this new proposed element, called ununoctium for now.
So, commence the paperwork! Revise the chemistry textbooks. Revise the charts hanging in those chemistry classrooms. Launch the naming discussions and cross-check options with a list of available abbreviations. These are the first additions to the periodic table since 2012’s twofer: flerovium (114) and livermorium (116).
The periodic table excites the public in ways that other complicated scientific discoveries might not. It is, after all, the only chart that contains literally everything in the universe, broken down into tidy abbreviations.
But these new additions to the periodic table are different from those with which we are familiar. The elements discovered in modern times are not those you can see and hold, like gold or iron. They don’t naturally occur on Earth. The newly discovered elements are birthed and isolated in laboratories, for seconds at a time, before vanishing again. But scientists insist they still are elements worthy of membership in the vaunted periodic table.
On and on, those researchers, who probe the frontiers of human knowledge, struggle to be remembered in the annals of science. They harbor faith in things proved but invisible, they organize our world into small, two-dimensional boxes (Cu, Hg, Fe) that are really as large as the universe and sometimes as inexplicable.
Scientists have proven that the universe is expanding and that the rate of expansion is accelerating. As the universe continues to grow, so does the periodic table. A century ago, at the birth of radioactivity, uranium was thought to be the ultimate discovery, the final element. There remains the existential question of how many more elements we’re going to get. The recent discoveries have been so laborious and so time-consuming that there may come a point at which our scientific abilities are outstripped by nature itself, at which point we have discovered as much as we can about the building blocks of matter. It remains to be seen what new frontiers these researchers will uncover.
And, as to what researchers might call that very last element? Maybe ultimatium? Or, unobtainium? Or even, infinitium?
Stay tuned. Those scientists are still busy probing the yet unknown fringes of human knowledge.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.