Thursday, May 8, 2014

An experiment, inspired by Susannah Locke

This morning, Susannah Locke of Vox published a GIF-heavy explanation of new element 117. Here is Ms. Locke's text without the GIFs: 
How scientists made a new chemical element, by Susannah Locke
The periodic table is on its way to get a new chemical element. 
On May 1, researchers in Germany published a paper in Physical Review Letters showing that they had created element 117. The results confirm previous experiments by a team of Russians and Americans and make it likely that 117 will someday get an official name and join the periodic table. 
Researchers have been creating man-made elements since the 1950s. Recently, in addition to element 117, some experiments seem like they generated 118, and scientists are now attempting to make 119. 
Synthetic elements are exceptionally difficult to create and only exist for a split second before falling apart. How do researchers do it, and why do they even bother? Here's the story of man-made elements. 
A guide to making new chemical elements 
First, let's start with the basics. 
Most known chemical elements have been found to occur on Earth naturally. All elements are all denoted by their atomic number, the number of protons in their nucleus, and the natural ones start with hydrogen (1) and end with californium (98).
But it doesn't stop there. Scientists have created 20 other synthetic elements. Those start with einsteinium — atomic number 99. (You could also consider atomic numbers 93–98 synthetic elements because they are almost exclusively man-made.) 
The atoms of these synthetic elements are all really, really big, but only exist for a short period of time. The bigger they get, the more positively charged protons they have in their nuclei, which repel each other and help make the atom unstable and more and more radioactive. 
There are lots of reasons why scientists might want to make new elements. Finding out how these new atoms behave helps with basic nuclear physics, and some are simply interested in better understanding what makes nature tick. 
Scientists are also motivated by the quest to find the theoretical, magical island of stability — where a proposed group of very heavy elements might have much longer lives, flouting the general trend. Certain special numbers of protons and neutrons, referred to as magic numbers, are predicted to produce more stability. 
So scientists have been creating larger and larger elements working up to and around this possible island. And element 117 is one of those steps. 
Back in 2010, researchers first created element 117 by using a particle accelerator to smash together two smaller elements: calcium and berkelium. (The experiments were especially tricky because berkelium itself decays quickly and had to be generated in a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) They did it again in 2012. 
 The placeholder name for element 117 is ununseptium. And, as expected, the element was highly radioactive. Its half-life is only about 50 thousandths of a second. But it survives long enough to suggest that the magic island of stability is very close. 
Then, in spring of 2014, a separate research group confirmed the existence of 117 through an entirely different method. These scientists were actually trying to create a different element — element 119. They haven't been successful in doing so yet. But they did manage to create 117 by smashing a beam of ionized calcium at 67 million miles per hour into berkelium. 
In the process, they also produced something unexpected: a new isotope of element 103, lawrencium (named after Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). This isotope turned out to be surprisingly stable — another piece of evidence that the island of stability might be nearby
It's not official yet, though. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry will be the one to make the call. At some point, it will decide whether there's actually enough evidence for element 117 to officially join the periodic table and get a real name. 
Element 117 may have to hold on a while for official confirmation. The last element to join, 116, waited six years.
There's been a lot of discussion on Twitter as to whether or not Ms. Locke's piece was distracting or not. Considering that I find the text above to be really easy to read and perfectly explanatory, I think this is evidence that it is the GIFs and the GIFs only, that are problematic.

I also think that this was an experiment worth trying. Buzzfeed has done a lot of journalism (or "journalism") that's GIF-heavy and I get completely distracted by it, almost like the protagonist of "Memento." But who knows, maybe it draws people in. For me, though, the experiment failed. 


  1. The Iron ChemistMay 8, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    Holy cow, those GIFs are corny. Was the Insane Clown Posse one really meant for kids/general audiences?

    In other news, I can identify the Insane Clown Posse on sight. This is likely not a good thing.

  2. Don't see the point myself. As you've shown, the text functions just as well without the GIFs, they're not adding to the article at all, either in terms of improving explanations or adding humour. But I guess if a flashing, two-second looping clip every couple of sentences helps to keep the attention of those who wouldn't normally read something scientific, then I'm all for it.

  3. On the other hand, perhaps the Chemjobber blog should start doing this.

    "Unemployment of graduate chemists is down 0.8%."

  4. Jesus Christ that's annoying!

  5. Good text. Horrible GIFs. The experiment failed for me also. Thanks for reposting the text here.

  6. Just another example of someone trying to be too clever. Obviously didn't work here.

  7. The GIFs are indeed idiotic. Also, the first photo does not lend any credence to the whole "mad scientist" image. Not at all. Nada.

    1. There are two problems with the first photo. The first is obviously the stereotype problem.

      The second is equally important: none of this chemistry happens in the solution phase!


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