This is one of those random stories. The other day I was looking for something online, typed too fast, and entered the capital letter "S" into the search engine. After a moment's thought, it directed me to the Wikipedia page for Sulfur: chemical symbol S. I was about to navigate away, but the pretty periodic table caught my eye. (Yes, I am easily distracted.) So I clicked on it for a closer look.
Well. The periodic table goes up past 200? Who knew? It doesn't, of course -- yet -- but I had some fun clicking around (completely forgetting my original search, but hell, it was the weekend and the baby was asleep) and after a while I ended up at this article on superheavy elements:
We now have data on the properties of 29 new nuclei with atomic numbers between 104 and 118. The decay modes, energies and lifetimes of the heaviest nuclei all agree with the predictions of the microscopic nuclear model, which provides the first experimental evidence for an island of stability in superheavy nuclei. But we have only reached the shores of this island. We have found a steep rise in the stability of superheavy nuclei with atomic number, but we are still far from the region in which nuclei may live for thousands, maybe even millions, of years. The problem is that we do not yet know how to make the neutron-rich nuclei that will take us towards the magic number N = 184. However, there could be a way round this. If the longest living superheavy nucleus has a half-life of tens of millions years then it should be present in very small quantities on Earth. The only difficulty then is finding it.You want to take a look at this lovely graphic. See that blue bit on the upper left? That's the island, where they're trying to go. They can't quite reach it yet. Anyway. I liked the article, but what struck me was the name of the author: Yuri Oganessian. Another Armenian! They're everywhere! Well, maybe. Googling shows that Oganessian -- who is sort of the dean of superheavy element study, if you're working in this field you know all about him -- Oganessian was born in 1933 in Rostov, which is at the top of the Caucasus but still some distance away from Armenia. Of course, Russia is full of Armenians and Russo-Armenians; further googling showed that Oganessian is a Slavicization of "Hovhannesian". So he's probably at least of Armenian descent. ...superheavy elements. If we do find any stable ones, they're likely to be strange. Their nuclei are so massive that relativistic effects become important. So, instead of just being a heavier version of platinum or whatever, they may have very odd chemical and magnetic properties. (And one of them may be a gas. A very dense gas. How cool is that?) To link this to another preoccupation of this blog, superheavy elements have been a topic of science fiction since forever. There's a Poul Anderson novel, naturally. And Oganessian himself has appeared at least once in science fiction... in Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction, of course:
It began when an international team of researchers headed by Yuri Oganessian at the JINR in Russia (then the USSR) boasted of doing the deed first by bombarding uranium with argon-140 ions and then by bombarding thorium with calcium-44 ions. This claim was disputed, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) declined to give credit to the Ion Jets, as the team styled itself. Then "Big Al" Ghiorso and his homies at Lawrence Berkeley—they called themselves the Supercolliders—made a bid for turf. But again, the evidence was too close for the IUPAC to call. Soon thereafter, the Atom Smashers, a Teutono-Russo-Finno-Slovak gang operating out of the GSI in Darmstadt, said they'd bombarded a lead target with nickel ions and produced three atoms of what was then given the temporary handle ununnilium. Unfortunately, by the time the IUPAC referees got there, the atoms were gone, decayed to hassium, seaborgium, and rutherfordium. Finally, the Ion Jets, under their new leader Yuri Lazarev (Oganessian had been deposed in a knife fight), said they'd created element 110 by bombarding plutonium with sulfur-34 ions, and also as part of the alpha-decay chain from their discovery of element 114. By this point, emotions were running so high that the IUPAC judges changed their names, moved to a neighboring city, and hid under their beds, waiting for the whole thing to blow over. Which is how it came about that all three teams agreed to settle the matter once and for all, in the parking lot out behind the gym after the big game. They brought shivs and zip-guns, and wore their gang smocks. When the blood stopped flowing, the Darmstadt Atom Smashers were the last ones standing. Which is why ununnilium is now officially called darmstadtium. Science isn't pretty. But the scientific method gets results. If you don't believe me, you can always take it up with Yuri the Knife.