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Published: Sunday, 6/12/2011

Elemental work

The news that scientists have created two new chemical elements brings to mind a ditty from the 1960s by humorist Tom Lehrer, sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”:

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,

And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium...

The song brings to life the periodic table of elements, which often is called the most important reference in chemistry. It arranges all the elements in an easy-to-read chart.

The new elements are Numbers 114 and 116. For now, they are called ununquadium and ununhexium — not exactly household names like some of the above, but these are temporary.

Reports say the permanent names likely will be flerovium, after the Soviet nuclear physicist Georgy Flyorov, and moscovium, after the Russian capital. Both elements were created at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research near Moscow, in collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

In the periodic table, the number of an element stands for the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. Leading off the list is hydrogen, with one proton.

The new elements are “heavy.” They were created in a particle accelerator by smashing together the nuclei of other elements. Thus, No. 114 was created by combining calcium with plutonium, and No. 116 by combining calcium and curium.

Some elements — aluminum, hydrogen, and oxygen, for example — are common and play roles in our daily lives. But what of an element, such as these new ones, that exists for less than a second?

Sometimes there’s no telling where scientific research will lead. Perhaps flerovium or moscovium will play a role in treating disease, or lead to an element that will do so. Perhaps they will open the door to a source of clean, safe energy.

The scientists who labored in anonymity to create the new elements deserve to have their praises sung. Perhaps someday there will be another stanza to Mr. Lehrer’s song.

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