Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 9, 2010

World’s Heaviest Element

The science news this week is all about the discovery of a new element, as yet unnamed, with an atomic weight of 117. Like all the elements “discovered” during what seems like my entire life, this substance “does not exist in nature” but was manufactured under conditions either extreme or unbelievable in the laboratory, depending on the degree of your faith in science.

Let’s pause for a moment before we go on: “does not exist in nature.” What the heck does that mean? Held to this standard, beer doesn’t exist “in nature” either, although it’s a relatively natural substance. Sure, if you take the Coors ads literally enough, you may conclude that as you’re hiking along some slope covered in pristine snow somewhere above Telluride or Aspen and come across a clear-running freshet of water, you have only to follow said stream downhill far enough to find it transformed into golden pools of beer. THAT would be natural.

I suppose we could imagine that some primordial ancestor of ours — we’ll call him “Bud” —  left a pot full of grain out in the rain, discovered the now-ruined food, tossed in some other trash like greens and old bread, covered it over, and left it there ’til trash day. Lo and behold, fermentation took place and his neighbor, Am-Stell, happened by a few days later and, being exceedingly thirsty, took a drink. Beer was discovered, occurring in “nature.” It does seem like a stretch, but how would some ur-brewer really have thought of grain and water and yeast and hops and malt and whatever else is in there? I like my version.

Okay, enough teleology. This new discovery was made by scientists working in Russia, teamed with some at the Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee and elsewhere. According to the accounts, like all these man-made elements, the new addition to the Periodic Table was made by bombarding one substance with atoms of another substance. In this case, Berkelium and Calcium. What’s daunting is to think that in laboratories all over the world, scads of scientists are bombarding substances “A” with atoms of substances “B,” over and over again.

“Vat you tink, Klaus? Keep bombarding Chenium mit Clintonium, or do ve mooff on to Powellium and Iranium?”

Eventually, I guess, three or four atoms of something new fly off, and you’d better hope whichever graduate assistant has the job of watching the Novoelement Indicator — or whatever detects these particles — is paying attention, or they’re not going to fare very well in their thesis review.

That’s what happened here. The Russians got a few ounces of Berkelium (one assumes less than three ounces, or they’d’ve never gotten it on a plane) from Oak Ridge and started shooting Calcium atoms at it. Result: new element!

After a lifetime of hearing about procedures like this, I am still utterly clueless as to how you build machines to get you some atoms of calcium, much less another machine to “shoot” them at a target. That’s insanely complex. If Armageddon comes, this is one of the activities it’ll take us a long, long time to get back around to doing again.

My point today, science fans, is to relate the true story of the creation of the World’s Heaviest Element, heretofore unreported in “Nature” or “Really Small Science” or any other of the respectable journals. I was there. I saw it happen, witnessed the uncanny results, and have lived to tell the tale. The substance created by this procedure is heavy, really heavy. It still doesn’t have an official atomic number because a special team of scientists is still trying to create a means to measure something that heavy. If the new Russian element is 117, though, a reasonable guess is that the subject of my story, Lugubrium, is much, much heavier: perhaps 550 or 560. 117? Don’t make me laugh.

It was a normal day at work. TOO normal. There were no crises, no takeover attempts, no Major Strategic Initiatives, no reorganizations or Rebranding Efforts. Nothing. People were just doing their jobs and the company was making money and the shareholders were anticipating dividends. Clearly, someone had to do something. Business, as does Nature (nature again!)  abhors a vacuum, and something must rush in to fill the void. I can tell you’re way ahead of me: someone formed a committee. In fact, the largest, most far-reaching and inclusive committee ever brought together. The exact objective of this committee has now been lost in the furor that arose at the end, but, basically, it seems to’ve been a committee whose job was to consider why we were just doing business and making money and not Strategizing, reorganizing or Rebranding.

It was a conference call, spanning every time zone on earth — even those funny ones on the half-hour — occupying conference rooms, offices, people on cell phones in cars and airports and, reportedly, our astronaut who was at the time doing some repairs to a space telescope. Yes, it was big. A giant, inert mass of humanity, representing, it turned out, the equivalent of an elemental substance.

Well, the talking started. Because there was no clear agenda and no certain purpose, the words were rarified, vague, evanescent, in short, B.S. This meeting is, in fact, being considered for entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most B.S.-intensive event ever to occur in Nature (!).

Because not many of you are highly trained scientists (the Carlsbad Genetics Genius is the only real scientist I know who might be reading), I won’t go into the deep mysteries of what occurred. To summarize, there was something in the nature of those meaningless, droning, B.S.-encrusted words striking that mass of humanity that triggered the equivalent of a transforming atomic reaction. The minds of the listeners slowed, weighed down by the immense density of meaninglessness being delivered through telephones, cell phones, computer speakers, being hammered again and again, “bombarded,” to use the phrase common in atomic research.

And it happened! In conference rooms and offices, cars and airport lounges, in cubicles and home offices, Lugubrium was formed! It built up on desks until they collapsed. It accumulated on floors and blocked doors, some of which have never swung properly again. Cars in which drivers were listening on cell phones ground to a halt, unable to move the great weight. Ultimately, Lugubrium was so heavy it sank into the very earth and formed a barely detectable layer floating in the magma core of the planet.

So, tell the Russkies that they can keep firing ground-up calcium tablets at anything they want. They’ve got about four hundred protons to go!



  1. “The Ulimate Dish Washer”

    You wondered about how they build such machines. Talk about strange — listen to this:

    My brother in law is an engineer in Silicon Valley (no, he’s not strange, silly!). His firm builds machines that clean semi-conductors during the mfg. process. (I never knew this was necessary; and don’t ask me how.)

    These are REALLY BIG, heavy machines. They weigh many tons, and when fully built, must be CAREFULLY loaded onto 747s for delivery to their customers. These machines will BARELY fit through the rear cargo door.

    The machines are made from aluminum. Not pathetic, thin sheets like multi-ton airplanes are made from (or used to be made from). The engineers start with a SOLID block of aluminum about 1,000 cu. ft. (yeah, you heard me right, a SOLID 1,000 cu.ft.), imported from a mine in EUrope. Then they carve out the inside, leaving several feet thick walls that nothing can penetrate. They then install the cleaning mechanisms.

    Who thinks of these things? Is this wild or what?


    • My title should have read “The Ultimate Dish Washer,” with a “t.”


    • So, that’s a cube 10 feet on a side. Big opportunity there for recycling pop cans!


      • AT LEAST 10′ per exterior side. Although the cube’s hollowed out, there’s not much room for recycling, actually. The walls are each 2-3′ thick. Just try and penetrate that, Mr. Electron!


  2. Yeah, I think they used that new app – cyclotronPro.


    • I’m betting my PC doesn’t have enough memory to run that!


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