LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Two new elements were officially added to the periodic table this month. Scientists have known about them for years, but it's a long road from discovery to fame. To explain, we have two veteran explainers, hosts of the podcast HOW TO DO EVERYTHING, Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag.
IAN CHILLAG: For starters, elements 114 and 116 don't occur in nature.
MIKE DANFORTH: No. They were made in a lab.
CHILLAG: Right. Which might seem like cheating, but that's how it's done these days.
DANFORTH: Yeah. And the reason the approval process takes so long has to do with how new elements are made. Here's Paul Karol. He's the chair of the committee that approved the new elements.
Dr. PAUL KAROL (Joint Working Party for the Discovery of New Elements): The technique that has fallen into place now is the element is identified by the number of protons.
DANFORTH: You know, we're just going to fade Paul down here. He goes on like this for a while, and it's kind of complicated.
CHILLAG: Basically, what you do is you smash together atoms of two elements and hope their nuclei fuse, making a new element.
DANFORTH: And with these two new elements, the product is tiny and lasts less than a second before it decays away. So it's not like you have a chunk of metal to show off.
CHILLAG: Instead, you get pages of computer data from advanced sensors.
DANFORTH: You know, I'm betting we can actually fade Paul back up and he'll still be talking about this.
Dr. KAROL: ...already known. When these two species combine, perhaps once out of a billion-billion collisions - so that's a billion-billion - the experiments usually last for a month, and maybe they'll get one or two indications that they've made something of interest.
CHILLAG: Once you pull off your one in a billion-billion shot, other scientists have to check your work by doing it the same thing, which explains why it takes a while to get to on the periodic table.
DANFORTH: Once Paul Karol's committee decides your element is legit, you get an invite from chemistry's governing body to name it.
CHILLAG: Ken Moody is with the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. They discovered 114 and 116, in conjunction with the Russian team.
Mr. KEN MOODY (Lawrence Livermore National Lab): I coach sports teams at the high school. One of the players on my team named Hanna told me I need to name it Hanna-um. And Nicole wanted it named Nicolium. No matter what it gets named, there's going to be a whole bunch of little girls that are disappointed.
CHILLAG: Also, Paul Karol, one of the guys who signs off on new elements, says there are rules. There's even a handbook called "Naming of the Elements."
Dr. KAROL: Every new element has to end in I-U-M, ium. It could be named after places, mythical things, properties of the element.
DANFORTH: So we could have a Narnium?
Dr. KAROL: Yes, you could have a Narnium.
CHILLAG: It can get competitive. During the Cold War, labs from the United States and the Soviet Union both claimed they'd discovered the same new elements. And scientists refer to the decades-long naming battle that ensued as The Transfermium Wars.
DANFORTH: And while that sounds like maybe the seventh "Star Wars" movie, it's not nearly as exciting.
CHILLAG: Maybe we can help it out with some sound effects.
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. KAROL: And so when you read the literature...
(Soundbite of laser blast)
Dr. KAROL: ...the Russian literature referred to Kurchatovium.
(Soundbite of Dark Vader breathing)
Dr. KAROL: The American literature referred to Rutherfordium.
(Soundbite of Chewbacca growling)
(Soundbite of music)
DANFORTH: Finally, in 1997, chemistry's governing body stepped in and decided the name would be Rutherfordium.
CHILLAG: As for 114 and 116, no name has been officially decided yet. Could we see an era of corporate naming rights for elements? Pepsium?
DANFORTH: Or Viagrium?
CHILLAG: Here's Paul Karol again.
Dr. KAROL: I hate to say I can't envision it, because I've been surprised too many times, and I also heard the expression everyone has their price.
DANFORTH: It doesn't, you know, it doesn't seem that strange to me to think that someday, we'll refer to the Tostitos Periodic Table of Elements.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KAROL: Possibly, unless Doritos get there first, right?
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium...
WERTHEIMER: Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag are producers at NPR's WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
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