Better Atoms with Atom Smashing (Molecular Monday)

Atom smasher. If you ask me, there’s something deliciously primal about that term. I know we’re talking about particle physics, one of the most advanced and sophisticated and math-intensive branches of modern science, but still….

One of the reasons we do this incredibly barbaric thing to atoms is in the hope that, if we smash atoms together just so, their nuclei will fuse into new atoms. Bigger atoms. Better atoms? Possibly. We won’t know if we don’t try!

Unfortunately so far, all our bigger and possibly better atoms tend to fall apart before we can really experiment with them. They’re just too big and unwieldy for the strong nuclear force to hold them together. In most cases, our newly fused atoms undergo radioactive decay in a matter of seconds, or milliseconds, or sometimes even microseconds.

And yet we keep trying. Element 103 (lawrencium) was unstable, so we made element 104 (rutherfordium). That turned out to be unstable too, so we made element 105, then 106 and 107 and so on. At this point, we’re up to element 118 (oganesson) and we still haven’t found any of these super-heavy elements to be stable, despite predictions going back to the 1960’s that some of them should be.

But perhaps we’ve missed something. When element 117 (tennessine) was discovered, it was unstable. No surprise there. It existed for maybe a few milliseconds before it decayed. But when it decayed, according to this article from Scientific American, another element was produced as a byproduct: element 103, lawrencium. Which I told you just a paragraph ago was unstable, so who cares?

Except this was a different isotope of lawrencium than any previously seen, with a few extra neutrons in its nucleus. Enough extra neutrons to make lawrencium stable. Well, stable-ish. With a half-life of about eleven hours, it’s stable enough that we could conceivably do some experiments with this stuff, maybe start getting a sense of what its chemical properties are.

No doubt we’ll soon be hearing about elements 119 and 120, but the discovery of an almost stable isotope of element 103 suggests we may yet find other stable or semi-stable isotopes among the elements we’ve already identified. All we have to do is keep smashing atoms together.

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Today’s post is part of a bi-weekly series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays, where we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe.

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