How scientists created an element


If I may I’d like to also recommend Sam Kean’s book The Disappearing Spoon, which has a great chapter on these super-heavy elements. The writing is clear enough that even I understood it.

I find the theoretical “islands of stability” fascinating, even though it seems likely even the most stable synthetic elements would probably be too difficult to produce in quantity for any possible commercial uses.

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Oh, this is quite wonderful.

The powerful five-foot thingamatron has irradiated the gold foil. Now, the professor must run upstairs briskly to the fume cupboard, without pausing even to hold a door for a lady, and plunge the delicate foil into aqua regia, Meanwhile his assistant summons a hansom cab, and holds out the professor’s hat, ready. “Quickly, my good fellow - to the Chemical Institute with all dispatch: there is a half-soverign for you if you hurry”. And they are off…

Mendelevium 257 has a half-life of five and a half hours. In those days, the post would probably have got most of it there in time.


So great to see this in Boing Boing. The retired scientist who restored this video spent many hours of his own time on it - it’s wonderful that this little bit of history is being preserved. Unfortunately, there isn’t a much push at LBL to preserve historical documents and artifacts.


And how would they know what the half life of a new never before seen element would be?


While they were “updating with narration and sound effects” the film, couldn’t they have changed the colour of the VW to white and painted a big ‘53’ on it?

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They wouldn’t of course. But there is a lot of difference between a computer looking at a billion bubble chamber images and finding one small dislocation of tracks in one set of tracks, showing that one atom of something existed for a millimetre or so at nearly the speed of light; and separating the elements using chemistry, than chromatography, and then measuring the fractions one at a time for decay products as we saw in the film.

When I was in Cambridge in the seventies, they re-opened a lab in the New Cavendish site that had been sealed since the 1920’s, because Lord Rutherford had dropped a tube of radium, or something. These new atoms are definitely getting nippier. But what’s the point in making an element if you can’t put it in a test-tube with some acid, eh?

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