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Weighed down by 117

india Updated: Apr 08, 2010 22:35 IST

Hindustan Times
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Remember the good old days when elements were called ‘hydrogen’, ‘carbon’, ‘iron’ and other, well, elementary names? Even cool-sounding ‘deuterium’ and ‘titanium’ had a sci-fi quality to them. The latest element to be discovered — or rather created, since it’s a man-made one — is called ‘ununseptium’. And here’s the best part: before you can even get around pronouncing the new kid in the periodic table, ununseptium will be gone. In a flash! At least, we hear the scientists are working on another name now.

So what’s with Element 117, born out of a controlled crash of a calcium isotope (unsteady element) and the radioactive element berkelium? For starters, it’s very very heavy — by which we don’t mean that bridges will immediately be built of chunks of ununseptium, but that it contains 117 protons (the bits that give atoms their mass), making it almost 40 per cent heavier than lead.

But here’s the twist in the tale: although Element No. 117 is superunstable, lasting a few fractions of a second before self-destructing, it’s relatively longer-living than heavy elements that are lighter (have less protons). Which may confirm the theory that heavy atoms become increasingly unstable as the proton count goes up but then become increasingly stable as the elements get heavier.

A bit like human woes decreasing with more money but then increasing again when too much money comes one’s way. Or that’s how we strapped-for-cash ununseptium-watchers would like to see things.