5X5 Episode 70

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5X5 Episode 70
New Element Discovered
30th June 2009

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5X5 69 5X5 71
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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New Element Discovered[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we are talking about a newly "discovered" super-heavy element.

R: He's not heavy; he's just my element!

J: It's the element with no name.

B: Actually, the element was discovered 13 years ago by scientists at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. They created this super-heavy element that is not on the periodic table of the elements that we all know and love. Now, 13 years later, the IUPAC (the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) have finally given this new element its blessing after the element was independently verified, which is one of the things that's required for them to sign off on a new element – somebody else has to independently create this element. So, all that is needed now is an official name so that it can then be added to the periodic table. I suggest Skeptonium.

S: Skeptonium?

J: Well, Richard Saunders put a bid in; he wanted it to be called Elementominium.

E: Oh, Richard.

R: And Richard Wiseman is starting a campaign for it to be called Kryptonite.

S: Although, there is already a Krypton.

R: I know. I think it's confusing.

J: They should call it Dolomite.

S: There is already a short list, which the researchers are keeping close to their vest, so we won't know.

R: What I don't get is that we all knew it was there, right? It doesn't take a genius to see when you are looking through the periodic table, element 109, 110, 111, 112... gap... 114. I mean...

S: Yeah.

R: I had it figured out.

S: I agree. I take exception with the whole notion of "discovering" this new element. They actually didn't discover – it's not like it was out there in the universe and they found it. Which was the case, for example – they created it – they created it. They took a super-collider and they smashed some zinc into some lead and eventually they got it to fuse together, and by the rapid decay of the result, they were able to show that, for a fleeting moment, one of the atoms had 112 protons. The number of protons is what determines –

B: The atomic number.

S: The atomic number. That's right. And then the number of neutrons determines the isotope. So, this was a 112-proton element. These things don't last for very long, because they're at the upper limit of an atom's ability to hang together. They have a tendency to break apart because the repulsive force from the positive protons are exceeding the attractive forces of the nuclear force.

E: So why, therefore, under the natural forces of nature, can you only get to a certain point and it takes mankind to exceed the point that nature can otherwise yield.

S: Well, it's not so much that they can't be made – maybe these things are being made in supernova explosions – it's that they're extremely unstable; they last for milliseconds. So if 112 was made in a supernova, it would have long since decayed. It just has to do with the balance of the different types of forces; the electromagnetic forces trying to break apart the nucleus, mainly from the repulsive of the positive protons exceeds the attractive force of the nuclear forces. So, it's just the upper limit of the stability of a nucleus to hold together.

B: Now, we have mentioned how unstable they are. Yet, scientists theorise, though, that beyond uranium, which is 92 protons, there may be an island of stability in which elements can contain a specific "magic" number of protons and neutrons that would give them much greater stability and a half life that is much, much longer. Perhaps, in terms of hours, days, months; something that we could actually study more closely and maybe, who knows, maybe we can even put some of these new elements with novel properties to use.

J: Umm, first of all, who gets to name a new element that's found?

B: The discoverers. Or the creators.

J: You have to create it, no matter how fleetingly it is in existence; you get to name it if you make it and you prove that you made it in a laboratory.

B: If you create it and it's verified independently by other people, then it's your baby. You can name it.

S: And keep in mind, only 4 atoms of this element have been known to exist. That's it. But that's enough, apparently.

J: And what's the purpose of creating these elements if they just exist for a blip. Why do we care?

B: Yeah, that's a good question, Jay. It might seem like it's a little indulgent for them to just create these things and, "oh there it is and it's gone" and what can you do with these things – they are so fleeting. Scientists can actually learn a lot about nuclear power plants and atomic bombs and how they function by studying this, so we can learn a lot by this type of stuff.

S: Yeah we're not going to be building stuff out of element 112 any time soon, but it is a way of exploring particle physics, essentially.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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