It isn’t carbon, it isn’t nickel, it sure as heck ain’t gold — it doesn’t even have a formal name. But never mind that. The newly created superheavy element, announced today in a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters and known so far simply as element 115 — for the number of protons in its nucleus — is a very real thing. So real that it’s been officially welcomed into the periodic table of elements, the atom’s equivalent of winning a seat on the Supreme Court.
Element 115, officially labeled ununpentium as dictated by international chemistry naming rules, is neither a natural nor practical thing. Unlike the first 92 elements on the table, it was created artificially, just as all of the others from 93 to 118 were. Like those other made-to-order elements too, this one was created in a particle accelerator, and no sooner had it flashed into existence than it flashed out — in less than a second. But that was more than enough time for physicists at Lund University in Sweden to detect the scattering of smaller particles it left behind. Reverse engineering that debris, they could confirm that the new element had indeed been present. The same kind of atomic forensics is behind nearly all of the great findings made possible by particle accelerators — including last year’s confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson.
For this very tiny sample of the very heavy element, the Lund scientists fired atoms of calcium (with its proton count of 20) into atoms of americium (95 protons) and got element 115. Even particle physics is sometimes as simple as basic addition. The new element is a lot heavier than iron (77) or even lead (82). The heaviest, naturally occurring element, holding the No. 92 spot, is uranium.
Nobody pretends that the as-yet unnamed big boy will have much real-world use. As Dirk Rudolph, the physicist who led the work at Lund University, dryly told the Telegraph, “Given the production rate — let’s say, two atoms per day — practical implications are far-fetched.” But as with all pure physics, what’s practical to you and me is not necessarily what’s powerful and game changing to scientists, and in this case, element 115 can provide a lot of insight into how elements are created in nature and how the universe itself came into being. It may also help scientists creater even heavier — but far stabler — elements down the line, ones that really could have everyday applications.
And about that name? The Swedish research team was not the first to create element 115. As long ago as 2004, a team of American and Russian scientists led by S.N. Dmitriev at Russia’s Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions produced the same atom. New elements aren’t considered confirmed, however, until the work can be repeated, which is why it took the latest announcement to earn the new element its formal seat at the periodic table. But the original discoverer still reserves the right to pick the name.
For now, it’s stuck with its clunky ununpentium moniker, the two un’s coming from the Latin unum, for the number one, and the pent coming from the Greek word for five. That name had already been in pop-cultural use as a mysterious element in both the Tomb Raider and Call of Duty video games. But most folks are betting that Dmitriev — who, after all, hails from the land of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky — will come up with something a little more lyrical.
An earlier version of this story included a typographical error. In the first paragraph, periodic table appeared as period table. The term was typed correctly elsewhere in the story.