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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Four More Place Settings at the Periodic Table

By Phil Plait

Well, this doesn’t happen terribly often: Scientists recently created/discovered four new elements, and the proposed names have just been announced.

I won’t keep you in suspense: Elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 have the proposed names, in order, of nihonium (symbol Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og).

Neat! I was a little thrown by the suffixes, but then realized where they come from. The –ium is pretty standard for most elements (helium, praeseodymium, etc.). Tennessine is in the vertical column with fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and so on, so that explains the –ine. Oganesson is in the column with the noble elements like argon, radon, and krypton, so there you go.

The process involved with naming an element is pretty interesting. It’s overseen by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, and in 1991 they published a detailed description of what has to happen for a new element to be considered a discovery (and I have to admit, as a nerd I found the paper to be fascinating).

It gets complicated quickly, and that has to do with radioactivity. Most of the elements you see in the Periodic Table are stable, so if you have a sample of one you can study it relatively easily. But in the nosebleed section of the table (down near the bottom, pretty much every element after 92, uranium) the elements are highly unstable, radioactive, and decay into lower-numbered elements sometimes in a teeny fraction of a second. It takes a particle accelerator to create these new elements—usually by bombarding lighter elements with protons—so not everyone can do it, or confirm someone else’s work.

A new element has to have a different number of protons in its nucleus than any element seen before (the proton number is what makes elements different; hydrogen has 1, helium 2, and so on), and it has to exist for at least 10-14 seconds. That is a very short amount of time, but it’s enough to confirm its existence. In general, the element will decay very rapidly and emit particles and energies in a very specific way, like a fingerprint, allowing its identification. In the case of the new elements, they have 113, 115, 117, and 118 protons in their nuclei.

Once an element is confirmed, the discoverers get to name it. That’s a whole other kettle of monkey wrenches, and has caused grief in the past because chemists, like any humans, can be proud and tribal. Arguments have erupted over who discovered which element first, and reading about this had me chuckling. I’ve seen similar disputes between astronomers.

Anyway, the new elements have had their names proposed by their groups. Nihonium was created at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan, and comes from the Japanese term for Japan (if the name is accepted, it will be the first element named after an Asian country). Moscovium is obvious enough; it was created at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia. Tennessine was proposed as a name to recognize the efforts of the Oak Ridge National Lab in superheavy element research (as well as other groups in Tennessee). Finally, oganesson is proposed to honor researcher Yuri Oganessian, a Russian nuclear physicist.

I think all four names are fine, though a part of me wished one of the groups had proposed keeping the temporary names—when an element is found, it’s given an odd provisional name, and for these four they were ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium, which is just fun and cool. Alas, they are not meant to be.

The proposed names are open for public comment, though exactly how that commentary gets to the IUPAC is unclear. I suspect the names proposed will stick. Unless the world really wants a new element named Elementy McElementface.

And why is all this important? Because all macroscopic normal matter is made up of elements. You are mostly water—hydrogen and oxygen—with a dash of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and others. Those same ingredients make up much of life on Earth. The Sun is hydrogen, helium, and a sprinkle of heavier elements. Pretty much every naturally occurring element in the Universe after iron in the periodic table was created in the intense heart of an exploding supernova, scattered out into the cosmos to create more stars and planets.

Think of it this way: The Universe is the ultimate chef, with science as the cookbook. And the elements? Those are the ingredients it uses to make everything.

That’s why we want to understand them. Scientists want to know how the cosmos cooks.

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