Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Uub Gets Its Birth Certificate

Old news, but nonetheless worth commenting on, element 112, known by it’s “placeholder” name Ununubium will soon have a proper name. The team at GSI who synthesized the element proposed the name Copernicium with the symbol Cp. the name is pending approval, but the chances are it will be accepted without much fuss. Traditionally, IUPAC gives discoverers a lot of leeway in naming and name like Copernicium is unlikely to raise serious objections.

When Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan produced plutonium in a lab in December of 1940 they were given the opportunity to name the new element and propose its symbol, the one or two Latin letters that would serve as shorthand for the element worldwide by scientists speaking all languages. The name of the element was named after what is now no longer the ninth planet of our solar system, and Glenn Seaborg proposed Pu as a tame joke. It was a play on the exclamation “Pee-yew!”. He did not expect IUPAC to approve the symbol, but it passed without any so much as a murmur.

People who have looked a periodic table in the last decade may look with puzzlement at the various elements near the bottom of the periodic table without formal names. The reason for this is that there is some debate over which research team discovered the elements first and whether the elements were actually discovered in the first place. The elements are made in miniscule amounts, are highly unstable and decay very quickly. Part of the difficulty in synthesizing the new element is getting evidence of its existence. This can be done by detecting decay products in statistically significant quantities. (If any nuclear chemists out there are reading this and think I’ve gotten anything wrong, please correct me.) The level of relative uncertainty over discovery has lead to at least one case in particular of alleged fraud.

IUPAC seems to have finally decided that in the case of element 112 that the scientists at GSI have priority it its discovery. I think it’s great to have be alive for the naming of a new elements. The size of atomic nuclei is severely limited by the physics governing the particles in the nucleus, and there will come a day when we will no longer be able to create new elements. Some people argue that we’re there already.


  1. If you look back thirty or forty years ago, the lifetimes of the actinides were considered to be too short to make real samples viable. Now curium and americium are plentiful enough to be used as the radioactive power source for deep solar system space probes and fermium and mendelevium are now used as the targets to try to make new elements because micrograms are available. Technology advances, the brevity scale stretches. Milliseconds used to be the limit, then microseconds. Some chemists to pico-, femto, and atto-second work.

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