The periodic table of elements is seen by millions of people every single day.
It’s an iconic image and the tried-and-tested map of chemistry.
It’s in basically every science classroom in the world along with that skeleton that your teacher named Boney, Skinny, Jerry, or whatever.
What you may not know is that the periodic table is incomplete.
Well, sort of. There’s no real limit to the amount of chemical elements there can be. Elements are discovered and identified by the amount of protons in their nuclei. For example, hydrogen: one proton in its nucleus. Lithium: three protons in its nucleus. Iridium: 77 protons in its nucleus, and so on.
So far, we’ve been able to observe and name over 100 elements and organize them by that atomic number into the periodic table — with only a few blank spots in the seventh row.
On Dec. 30, 2015, scientists from around the world could officially, finally, fill in those blank spots.
Elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 were officially discovered and assigned by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), a U.S.-based agency that oversees global chemical nomenclature, terminology, and measurement.
The seventh-row “superheavy” elements are the first to be added to the periodic table since 114 and 116 back in 2011.
Until now, they remained theoretical and were given placeholder names like 117’s “ununseptium,” which means “one-one-seven” in Latin.
There’s little you can do with these superheavy elements, as they don’t occur in nature and are incredibly unstable, decaying faster than you can even think about blinking.
However, a popular theory among scientists is that the more we learn about superheavy elements, the closer we get to a so-called “island of stability” wherein large atoms don’t immediately decay and can possibly become useful.
In the coming months, the four new elements will receive official names and instantly render every chemistry textbook out of date.
Elements 115, 117, and 118 were credited to and will be named by teams of Russian and American scientists.
Element 113, however, is its own underdog story.
In 2003, Japanese scientists at RIKEN began “bombarding a thin layer of bismuth with zinc ions traveling at about 10% the speed of light,” you know, like you do.
The result of that experiment was a single, fleeting glimpse of an element with an atomic number of 113. They kept at it, and eventually created 113 several more times.
While it only lasted less than a thousandth of a second, it was enough for the IUPAC to give Japan its first naming rights to an element.
According to Kosuke Morita, Japan’s RIKEN team leader, the honor of naming an element is “of greater value than an Olympic gold medal” for scientists.
Naming an element isn’t like naming a bridge. When you name an element, you’re putting your stamp on a fundamental and permanent building block of the universe. You’ve cemented your place in history.
I just hope Morita and his team come up with a better name for 113 than your science teacher did for that skeleton.