Things Periodic and Elemental


Quicksilver beads that escaped from broken thermometers first piqued Sam Kean’s interest in the elements. A curious, active child who suffered many bouts with strep throat, he searched the periodic table and discovered that number 80, mercury, is disguised as Hg, a symbol derived (through Latin) from the Greek roots hydro- and argyros, for water silver. Twenty years later, holding an honors degree in physics and possessing a flair for writing about scientific matters (he is a reporter for Science magazine and regularly contributes to this section), Kean has written his first book. In The Disappearing Spoon, published in July, he weaves together true tales and little-known facts about the periodic table.

We asked Kean to pose seven questions related to the table, its numbered elements, its history, and current events.

1. The U.S. government recently announced the discovery, in Afghanistan, of trillions of dollars’ worth of the elements lithium, gold, iron, copper, and cobalt. Hopes are that this wealth will help rebuild the Afghan economy. But mineral riches often hurt developing countries more than they help. In the Congo, for example, a thriving trade in tantalum (a key element for making cell-phone circuits) intensified a long civil war that has now claimed five million lives. Will Afghanistan benefit from its periodic-table riches, or will the already unstable country end up in worse shape as money pours in?

2. In the world of energy, carbon is king. But as carbon dioxide chokes our atmosphere, we may need to replace carbon-based oil with new forms of energy from new elements. Lithium shows promise in batteries, including those for electric cars, but batteries have well-publicized limitations. Hydrogen is potent but hard to produce and transport. Such alternative energy ounces as solar and wind use “rare earth” elements like dysprosium and neodymium to make better magnets to generate power. But the rare earths are very hard to purify. If the periodic table were a roulette board and scientists had to place their bets for the future of energy, you’d find stacks of chips all over the table. But which element will win?

3. The latest official element to join the periodic table was element 112, in June 2009. Its discoverers, a German team, named it copernicium, after astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. It was a pretty neutral choice, but element names are not always so benign. Elements discovered in the 1920s that were named for the sites of German victories in World War I caused an outcry, and during the Cold War, American, Soviet, and German teams fought for decades over the names of elements they all claimed they’d created first. Today, naming an element after Werner Heisenberg or Georgy Flyorov–great scientists, but key players in Hitler’s and Stalin’s nuclear bomb projects, respectively–could draw similar howls. Will we see more naming storms as more elements join the table?

4. In April, scientists added the newest unofficial element, element 117, to the bottom row of the periodic table. Why unofficial? Scientists created only a few atoms of it (an unfathomably tiny amount), and the atoms disintegrated so quickly they were more like ghosts of atoms than carbon or iron or anything we’re familiar with. Scientists will spend years scrutinizing the evidence for element 117, called “unuseptium” for now, and if the past is any guide, it could take up to 13 years to declare it official. Can scientists erase doubts about the existence of new elements more quickly, perhaps by making larger amounts?

5. Protons, neutrons, and electrons are all types of matter, and (in different combinations) they make up every element on the periodic table. But each particle also has a so-called antimatter counterpart–a mirror-image particle. Antimatter normally appears only in dark and faraway corners of the universe. But scientists can also produce small amounts of antimatter in the lab. In fact, scientists can coax an antielectron and an antiproton to bond and create an atom of “anti-hydrogen.” Can they make other bizarro elements–or even an entire “antiperiodic table”?

6. The ultra heavy elements along the bottom row of the periodic table (like 112 and 117) disintegrate very quickly. But certain arrangements of protons and neutrons–which appear in the nucleus of atoms–seem more stable than others. By taking advantage of that stability, some scientists believe they can create atoms much bigger than the ones we know today. However, other scientists argue that elements bigger than element 137 would violate Einstein’s laws of relativity. (Basically, they calculate that electrons in the atoms would be moving faster than the speed of light, which is impossible.) Which side is right? Are only 137 elements possible?

7. The shape of our periodic table–like a castle with turrets–has served scientists well for decades. But since the first tables appeared in the mid-1800s, scientific thinkers and tinkerers have come up with hundreds of different arrangements of elements. Some “tables” are shaped like honeycombs, others like pyramids, still others like Möbius strips. Our standard table does a good job of being clear and easy to use. But will some graphics genius someday find a better, more intuitive design that makes our periodic table look as antiquated as a sextant?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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