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The Periodic table

Ah, the Periodic Table of Elements. A staple of chemistry and a frightful sight for high school students who know they’ll have to memorize the whole thing for their midterms. It’s common to think of it as set in stone, but elements are continually being added. And when they are, it's a pretty big f-ing deal in the science world. Basically the chemistry version of MTV’s VMAs - including all of the drama. 

The first periodic table was created by a Russian chemist named Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev just over 150 years ago. Mendeleev organized his version of the table using notecards with the 63 known elements written on them, and ordered it by atomic weight. This arrangement left intentionally blank spaces - which at first glance must’ve appeared like he simply didn’t finish his work - but it was purposefully created to reflect a scientific truth he had uncovered: The Periodic Law. The law states that when elements are arranged in order of increasing atomic number, there is periodic repetition of their chemical and physical properties. In other words, the structure of the table predicted elements that had not yet been discovered by Mendeleev and other chemists.

Early elements were more easily detected, as they exist in abundance in nature. However, elements beyond Uranium (92) aren't naturally or regularly occurring in nature. As a result, scientists had to take matters into their own hands and essentially set up boxing matches between elements in order to observe new ones.

This technique has evolved over the years from cold fusion to hot fusion, but the basic concept remains the same: Utilizing one of these accelerating techniques, scientists shoot a beam of ions from one element at the atoms of another (and if luck is on their side) the two will fuse, forming the new element. If fusion does occur, scientists have a fraction of a millisecond (if that) to observe it before it breaks down and decays, as these elements are extremely unstable.

So how do elements get added to the periodic table? Well, once they’ve been observed the experiment needs to be repeated by other scientists for confirmation. After completing this step, the fun begins - and by fun we mean proof, paperwork and patience, c’mon we’re talking science here. Claims for new elements are submitted to the decision-makers at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics for review - this process can take years. 

Once accepted, the naming process can begin. Elements are given proposed names by the scientists who are credited with their discovery. The committee then has to approve the name, and once the element is announced there is a public review period of five months before final approval and publication. New elements can be named after a scientist, a place, a property of the element itself, a mineral or similar substance, or a mythological creature or concept. 

Over the years this process has faced its share of drama. During the Cold War for example, scientists from the U.S. and the Soviet Union both laid claims to discovering the same elements (102 through 109) and a naming battle ensued - also known as theTransferium Wars. The tensions were so high that they bubbled over into clashes at international conferences and in scientific papers. Ultimately the Transferium Committee was established in 1986 and drew up a set of criteria (still in use today) for determining whether an element had been discovered, and began divvying up the credit among the different labs. #ColdScienceWar

Learn more:

How to put a new element on The Periodic Table

The Transferium Wars

IUPAC: On the Discovery of New Elements

Image by Encyclopedia Britannica


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