Reflections on the Updated Periodic Table

By Paul Jeng

Where does science live? For me these days, it’s in the fifteen open tabs lagging my browser as I switch from email to PubMed. It’s in hot coffee in the morning and red velvet seminar cookies in the afternoon. It’s spelled out in Calibri on slides or floating around inside the heads of people arm-curling a five-pound Chipotle burrito while crossing York Avenue. But back in grade school, for many of us, science lived as outlines on posters on the wall. Nine concentric rings represented the solar system, squiggly lines denoted the borders of countries, and a grid of colored squares equaled a comprehensive catalog of all known elements. These posters were big glossy boxes of truth, inked into permanence by mysterious sources of unbridled knowledge (are school posters peer-reviewed?). As ubiquitous classroom décor, they served as road signs for navigating an educational frame of mind: science this way, English Lit that way.

The king of school posters was, unquestionably, the periodic table. What chemistry classroom or laboratory is complete without one? Few other images can claim a more complete symbolic representation of scholarship: fastidious organization, cryptic nomenclature, and stacks upon stacks of numbers. Its silhouette is unmistakable, a double-tower fortress fringed by a lanthanide-actinide moat, imposing to outsiders yet comforting for those who’ve earned citizenship within its walls. To chemistry-allergic premeds it’s a cold instrument of torture, but to science historians the tabular arrangement is a lovingly-crafted mural of the building blocks of existence. Quietly, it’s one of the most popular posters in the world. You could have a 36×24 printout delivered tomorrow by Amazon for under two dollars, or buy a vintage 1960’s linen edition shipped from Berlin through Etsy for over a grand, and everywhere in between. If chemistry were a subway system, the periodic table would be the ubiquitous MTA map. If laboratory halls were the bedroom walls of teenage girls from 1999, the periodic table would most certainly be N’Sync.

It may be tempting to view the periodic table, essentially the heart of chemistry, as a hallowed monument of science, carved in stone. In reality, the table is as much a finished product today as it was to Mendeleev in 1869. When The Rockefeller University was founded in 1901, there were 84 known elements. When I was born, that number had grown to 109. The chronically outdated periodic tables hanging around us should be regarded with pride, a remarkable testament to the speed of scientific progress and the breadth of human achievement or, alternatively, a massive conspiracy from Big Poster to boost sales revenues.

Last month, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially recognized four new elements, with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117, and 118. The confirmation of these elements completes the 7th period of the periodic table. This is cause for great aesthetic, if not scientific, gratification–but hold on before you rush to Sigma-Aldrich to order up a shiny new batch of ununseptium. Like all elements with more than 92 protons (or, heavier than uranium), these newly synthesized elements are highly unstable, existing only briefly during experiments that use particle accelerators to shoot beams of nuclei at other, heavier nuclei. For example, element 113 exists for under a thousandth of a second before deteriorating through alpha decay.

Like welcoming any new members to a family, there are now several things to consider. What are these newcomers like? How do they behave? What should we call them? Fantasizing about the names and properties of fictional elements has long been a favorite pastime of both science and science fiction. In the Marvel Universe, “vibranium” is the kinetic energy-absorbing alloy that forms Captain America’s shield, while the metal “mithril” comprises the nearly indestructible chain mail worn by several Bagginses of Tolkien’s novels. Though highly unlikely to play a role in battling supervillains anytime soon, the new elements have generated significant buzz in the scientific community, particularly about their potential names.

To begin with, discoverers do not have free reign over naming rights; after all, this decision impacts every single chemistry textbook in the world. In December 2015 IUPAC stipulated new provisional recommendations for the naming of elements, the most recent update from the first rules established in 1947. Official guidelines restrict new element names to people (living or dead), geographical locations (but not institutes), minerals, properties, or mythical characters. Suffixes are then added in accordance to historical and chemical consistency: “-ium” for elements in groups 1-16, “-ine” for group 17, and “-on” for group 18.

A list of potential names and estimated odds for approval has already been compiled by the Nature blog The Skeptical Chymist based on online petitions, write-in suggestions, and anticipated submissions from the discovering institutes. Element 113 (temporarily ununtrium) was discovered by researchers from the Riken Institute of Japan, making it the first element to be discovered in Asia. Proposed root names include Nipponium (Japanese for “Japan”, 3/1 odds), Taiyomium (Japanese for “’sun,” 50/1 odds), and, naturally, Godzillium (fictional Japanese monster, 500,000/1 odds).

Element 118 (temporarily ununoctium) was discovered through a collaboration between the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research of Russia and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. An additional collaboration that also involved the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee yielded elements 115 and 117 (temporarily ununpentium and ununseptium). Proposed names include Moscovium (1/2 odds), Berzelium (after chemist Jacob Berzelius, 5/1 odds), Sisyphisium (mythological Greek character, 500/1 odds), and Bowium (after recently deceased musician David Bowie, infinitesimal odds).

Final IUPAC-approved names will be announced a few months from now, but until then scientists are already looking onward to the next row, the eighth period. There is, in fact, a greater purpose to creating new elements than the pure execution of theory. Scientists hope to eventually find a series of elements that are stable and usable in practical applications. The predicted elements 120 and 126, for instance, may exist in a potential “island of stability” according to Paul Karol, chair of the IUPAC’s Joint Working Party. Though the seventh period is now complete, the future of the periodic table is as open as it ever was. Just remember to hang those new posters up with tacks, not glue.

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