The elusive number 113

Prospect Magazine

The elusive number 113

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Scientists’ creation of a new “superheavy” element—the culmination of a nine-year project—may change chemistry

After scientists ran out of “natural” elements to discover, they raced to make “synthetic” atoms

The periodic table of elements just got a new member. At least, maybe it did—it’s hard to tell. Having run out of new elements to discover, scientists have, over the past several decades, been making “synthetic” atoms, too bloated to exist in nature, which survive for just an instant before they splinter in radioactive decay.

But this is increasingly difficult as the atoms get bigger. The new element recently claimed by the Nishina Centre for Accelerator-Based Science, a Japanese research institute in Saitama, near Tokyo, has proven frustratingly elusive. It is known simply as element 113, its serial order in the periodic table, and efforts to create it have been underway since at least 2003.

These artificial elements are made and detected literally an atom at a time. The Japanese researchers claim only to have

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Philip Ball

Philip Ball
Philip Ball’s latest book is “Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything” (Bodley Head) 

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