Element 119 - Turning a line

[This article was taken from Julie’s blog The Stoichiometric Equivalent (June 2012). The blog highlights science and culture with an emphasis on chemistry education.]

I flipped to the Science and Technology section of The Economist this week to find an article about the periodic table. What fun!1

The title is appropriate because the article discusses the pending discovery of a new element on the periodic table. Unlike any other new element made in the laboratory, this element actually adds a new row to the bottom of the table. This has never happened before because there are elements in all existing rows that can be found in nature. It was not until 1940 that transuranic elements began to be added to the seventh row of the periodic table. At the time they were discovered, these elements existed only moment-arily in a laboratory and would quickly radioactively decompose.

This is a pleasant article discussing the introduction of something entirely new in chemistry — another shell of electrons surrounding the nucleus at a distance never before realized. I wonder what the shape of that shell might be visually?

One comment near the end made me laugh. "That will be a feather in GSI's2 cap in its friendly competition with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California..." Friendly competition? Doesn't this author remember the 2001 fiasco with Victor Ninov and element 118? That situation illustrated that the rivalry between labs is anything BUT friendly. Victor Ninov was hired because he successfully worked at GSI and discovered 110, 111, and 112. Berkeley hired him to show their rivals (GSI) that they were smarter, quicker and had not lost their edge. They were sheepish and ashamed they had missed out on the discovery of the three most recent transuranic elements. So they hired their rival who then forged data in an attempt to beat GSI to the discovery of element 118.

There is a book that describes the fiasco quite well. It is called The Disappearing Spoon3 by Sam Kean. The book was just okay overall but the chapter about Victor Ninov and element 118 made it worth reading. Fascinating story. And, something the author of this article in The Economist should really check out to be a bit more accurate next time.

A friendly competition? Anything but.....


  1. The Economist article —Turning a line — is in the
    May 12, 2012 issue, see previous article by Geoff Rayner-Canham for a discussion of this article.
  2. GSI: The GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. It was founded in 1969 as the Society for Heavy Ion Research (German: Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung), abbreviated GSI.
  3. The Disappearing Spoon was reviewed in the September 2011 issue of Chem 13 News. Some background of Georgiy N. Flerov is also provided in this chapter. It is interesting to note given the newly named element flerovium  — see page 11, this issue.