Our Ephemeral Periodic Table

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, better known by its acronym IUPAC, has announced that four new elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 will receive their permanent seats at the Periodic Table, thereby completing the heretofore incomplete seventh row. Things have sure changed since Dmitri Mendeleev and his contemporaries developed the Periodic Table with only a mere handful of 60 elements. Of course, those elements had names. These four new elements, on the other hand, have temporary placeholder names: "Baby Boy" 113 is named "Ununtrium," pronounced "un-un-trium" for its atomic number 113. "Ununpentium" is likewise the temporary name for 115, 117 is "Ununseptium," and element 118, well, you get the picture (HINT: it has an "oct-" in its name).

Before the other elements welcome them in with a slap on the back and a slew of "what took you so long?" queries, let's understand how the scientific process goes from no element to new element to named element. First off, these four elements were synthesized in large particle accelerators, which means that they were made by smashing and fusing smaller atoms together. Scientists don't actually "see" these new elements, but extrapolate their fleeting existence from their decay products. These elements are so "superheavy," that they decay within thousandths of a second after they are formed into smaller, more stable elements.

But before a particle physicist can run half-naked through the streets yelling "Eureka!" at his or her monumental discovery, the scientific machine has to kick in high gear, because an element's existence must be confirmed by two other laboratories before being recognized and placed on the Periodic Table. This process gives us a tangible glimpse into the nature of scientific discovery.

Most significantly, science is much more a process that results in a body of knowledge, rather than the body of knowledge itself, though the size of many science textbooks may attest to the contrary. Scientific knowledge, rather, is acquired through consistent and incremental observation and testing. "Eureka!" moments are far and few between, arrived at, if ever, by decades of tedious and persistent tinkering. Further, as scientific hypotheses are by their very nature falsifiable, it is hubris to think that what we know now to be true will forever remain so. Rather, scientific knowledge as evidenced in the changing face of the Periodic Table is fluid and is unfolding before our very own eyes.

Second, much different than in the days of Mendeleev when scientists worked alone and came to certain conclusions in parallel, twenty-first-century science is necessarily from the very get-go a collaborative endeavor. After all, not everyone has a particle accelerator in the backyard. Case in point, these four new elements emerge at the apex of an international collaboration among Russia, the United States and Japan.

And then there's the business of science. Now that these four elements have earned their keep, they need permanent names. Naming rights go to the discoverer and his funders under certain guidelines -- new elements can be named only after a "mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist." But given the new collaborative paradigm, there may be many backroom battles and bruised egos before the new names emerge.

"To scientists," The Guardian quoted former Riken president and Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori as saying, "this [discovery] is of greater value than an Olympic gold." Perhaps because "Nobel" gold is at stake. Or perhaps far more, because science has done what science does best -- ventured out a femtometer further into the final frontier of the unknown.

As a high school chemistry teacher, my students sometimes ask me fearfully if I will expect them to memorize the Periodic Table. Science, however, is not about memorizing the past. It's about standing on the shoulders of scientists before us to peer into the unknown. No, don't memorize the elements of the Periodic Table. Rather, go out and discover new ones. Which is just what Kosuke Morita, the leader of the Japanese team that discovered element 113, announced his team would do -- "look to the uncharted territory of element 119 and beyond."