My short bio: I'm Kit Chapman, science journalist formerly with the Royal Society of Chemistry. For the past three years I've specialised in superheavy elements - elements so unstable they do not exist on Earth. I've met every team that's discovered an element since 1940, and visited Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Labs in the US; GSI Darmstadt in Germany; the University of Stockholm and Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden; Dubna, Russia; RIKEN, Japan; and Australian National University, Australia.

Ask me anything about the weird history of element making (including how Superman and Col. Sanders got involved!), how we make elements, or where we're going to end up going.

SUPERHEAVY is out in select bookshops and at Cheltenham Science Festival and Stoke Newington Literary Festival NOW. You can also order it online here.

My Proof: Twitter

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Comments: 325 • Responses: 77  • Date: 

Dysan2797 karma

What exactly do you mean by "This is breaking the periodic table"?

mrcchapman187 karma

The periodic table is based on rules, one of which is periodicity - that a group follows a certain pattern. So lithium fizzes in water; sodium burns; potassium explodes.

Only the superheavy elements break those rules. They are so large we start getting something called relativistic effects, and that alters how the elements behave. So oganesson should be an unreactive gas with filled electron shells. It's probably a reactive solid with NO electron shells (everything just forms this electron soup called a Fermi gas). As soon as you get to the superheavy elements, the periodic table just stops working.

And that's really exciting!

Deadmeat55360 karma

Relativistic effects exist in all atoms though. Gold is only a "gold color" because of relativity.

mrcchapman84 karma

Sure, and mercury is a liquid. But they become more pronounced as you get to heavier nuclei.

smaugington8 karma

So Jumbonium could be real?

mrcchapman20 karma

You can name an element after a property, including its size, so you could call one jumbonium.

The atom's value is way too low, though.

CopperPotsBandit6 karma

The chemist in me sort of cries at the notion of the periodic table being broken.... :*(

mrcchapman25 karma

Well, remember the periodic table is fluid. It's changed shape numerous times. This is just a new iteration.

If it makes you feel better, here's a weird but very shiny periodic table.

KJ6BWB6 karma

Wow, incredible. Upvoted. Source? :)

mrcchapman13 karma

It was created for St Catharine's College, Cambridge, as part of its International Year of the Periodic Table celebrations. It was made by a silversmith solely of precious metals. Carbon has a diamond, gold is made of gold, platinum is platinum. I think it's the most expensive periodic table in the world.

marlashannon83 karma

What drives you to want to create new elements?

mrcchapman186 karma

It depends! At the start it was the race to build the atomic bomb. The first two past uranium, neptunium and plutonium, were kept secret for this reason - so much so the work was done in a tiny attic space in Berkeley, California. The attic stank - which is why plutonium is 'Pu' rather than 'Pl' (get it?).

When it moved into the Cold War, nobody was really sure what use the elements would be, but gradually it shifted to national prestige. The US and USSR both competed with each other for the honour of making the elements first and naming them. This was also one of the main motivations for the Japanese team - they wanted an element named after Japan!

Today it's about pure research. These elements are rewriting our knowledge of chemistry and the universe in general, so it's pure scientific exploration.

rattatatouille56 karma

Any thoughts on the Island of Stability?

mrcchapman69 karma

It exists, the challenge is getting there. We don't have enough neutrons at the moment, but there are a few good ideas about how we could hit it. We might also have an island around 120, which could be interesting to see.

DrBerminverter37 karma

I have like, a lot of neutrons. Do you want to borrow some?

mrcchapman48 karma

Sure. Are they in that unmarked white van with darkened windows?

rattatatouille20 karma

As for post Z=120 nuclides, what would we name the new group?

mrcchapman56 karma

Well, we are calling them superheavy elements up to z=126. After that...

Wait for it...

BEYOND SUPERHEAVY ELEMENTS!

Seriously, that's the official name. I guess it's because nobody's really sure if we're going to be forming a superactinide series or not - the predictions for where z=121 goes on the periodic table are wild.

rattatatouille20 karma

so you mean to say the electron configurations for Z=121 and above are still up in the air?

mrcchapman35 karma

Very much so - we're really not sure at all. There's a lot of work being done on the subject. Here's a great example from Pekka Pyykko in Finland.

retrend36 karma

Will the new elements ever be used by us?

mrcchapman107 karma

Some are! Plutonium for example in nuclear reactors, americium is used in smoke detectors, californium is used in the Mars rover.

But the really heavy ones? At the moment it's hard to say. If they remain as unstable as they are, it's doubtful - they are too short-lived to be of any practical use (or even to see them, some last ten-thousandths of a second). However! If we can hit the 'island of stability' - a region we believe exists where these elements are more stable - then we could in theory use them.

Realistically though, at the moment their main use is understanding how the universe is put together. Which is still pretty cool.

PyroDesu3 karma

Californium is not the fuel for any RTGs that I know of. The US (and by extension, Curiosity and the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover) uses 238Pu. The Soviets used 90Sr. There's been some experimental work with 210Po and 241Am. But nothing with Californium. It is used though, as a startup neutron source, a source for neutron activation analysis, and for certain kinds of radiotherapy. And for creating new elements, of course (It's what Oganessian and the Dubna team used to make oganesson).

That we use 238Pu was actually a problem, since we stopped making it (well, reclaiming it) for a while - NASA's supply was dwindling until Oak Ridge recently started making more in the High Flux Neutron Reactor.

mrcchapman6 karma

You're right that I didn't mean californium, I meant curium (I was typing rather quickly). But I never said it was used as a fuel source - it's used for spectrometry.

MemphisPeace35 karma

Great thread. I know jack shit about chemistry but the periodic table has always fascinated me. Why is it so damn beautiful? It’s like looking at a Picasso or something,... seriously why is it so beautiful to look at? Or is it just me?

mrcchapman73 karma

The shape of the periodic table is, to a scientist, elegant in its simplicity. You could have arranged it in many ways (and many people do - here's a whole feature on different shapes) but the classic version gives you everything you need at a glance. It's ordered in proton number, but from left to right you can see the electron configurations; looking down you can see groups and how similar elements behave; you can tell if something is a metal, understand how our building blocks of the universe relate to each other. And, at the bottom, away on a naughty step, we have the lanthanides and actinides - outcasts that are fascinating to understand. The names are evocative, the symbols hint as a mystery that you can understand with patience and study.

It's a wonderful thing.

Zardif9 karma

What's your favorite periodic table?

mrcchapman52 karma

The one I have signed by all the living element discoverers. :)

LoveBy1372 karma

Any chance you could post a picture of it? That sounds amazing!

Lulu_Rose30 karma

Whats one of the most interesting thing/fact about this field you're studying?

mrcchapman178 karma

We wouldn't have KFC if it wasn't for the Manhattan Project. The scale-up for plutonium was worked out at the world's first permanent reactor at a secret base in Tennessee called Oak Ridge. And the assistant cafeteria manager for Oak Ridge? Harland Sanders. Afterwards he set up Kentucky Fried Chicken.

If you want a science fact? One of the labs separates its plutonium using an anal vibrator. It's easy to clean, has exactly the right rpm and is cheap to replace. Also it can be used for up to 45 minutes continuously.

marlashannon43 karma

I’m laughing, crying and broke at this!!!🤣🤣 Such creative ingenuity! I’m imagining the brave soul who offered the suggestion explaining his knowledge of said device to the pencil pushers !!🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

mrcchapman94 karma

Well, it did raise a few eyebrows at procurement. I feel sorry for the undergrad who had to go back to the sex shop and tell them the first one had broken from overuse and they wanted another one...

sintaur42 karma

A number of superhero origin stories have to do with research lab accidents. You've got a lab with plutonium (nicknamed Pu cuz bad smell) and an anal vibrator. This story just writes itself.

mrcchapman55 karma

Dude, the Japanese put brewing yeast in their particle accelerator and bombarded it to create mutant sake (which they now sell). They did the same thing with cherry blossom to make mutant trees (which, again, they now sell).

Actually, that's probably not a superhero origin story, that's a kaiju origin story, isn't it?

OneMeterWonder12 karma

You wouldn’t happen to know where to get one’s hands on this mutant sake and these mutant cherry trees, would you?

mrcchapman18 karma

Wako, Japan. It's sold in shops!

BeatsByDravenn15 karma

What is the plutonium being seperated from?

And how does a simple buzzing butt plug manage to do the job?

mrcchapman37 karma

Plutonium has to be made, it doesn't exist in any large quantity naturally on Earth. This is done by basically sticking uranium into a nuclear reactor. First the uranium becomes neptunium, then plutonium, then (perhaps) elements beyond that. So you have to separate the plutonium out. There's also different isotopes of plutonium, and there are chemical processes for that.

So, you end up with a sample in a glove box, behind lead bricks to protect you, at the bottom of this awkward piece of glassware. And you need to shake it up, but because it's radioactive (and valuable!) you have to be careful how you do it. Turns out an anal vibrator is the way to go.

catsloveart5 karma

Are there Pics? You got to forgive me for asking. But I cant be the only one who wants to know what that set up would look like.

mrcchapman21 karma

DasAuto723 karma

How close are we to creating element 119? Could we see that discovery in the next five years?

mrcchapman44 karma

SO CLOSE. Two teams are working on it right now - the Russian/US team and the Japanese. The Japanese have sworn to keep going until they find it. It's a real race.

We're almost certainly going to see the first atoms in the next few years. It's unlikely the discovery will be official for at least a decade, though, as it would need to be confirmed etc.

___ah18 karma

Any favorite element and why ?

mrcchapman52 karma

It varies day to day. I've said boron in the past (because it's SO ODD) and I love looking at bismuth (all the shiny), but I would have to go with oganesson. I know Yuri Oganessian - and how many people can say they know a person a chemical element is named after!

CMDR-FusionCor317 karma

What're the weird effects of boron?

mrcchapman22 karma

Well, ignoring the whole 'makes slime' thing, all plants on Earth would die without boron.

Radial_Velocity16 karma

Wow, that actually looks like a fascinating book about a field of scientific history that I know very little bit. I've heard of the superheavy elements of course, but not the stories behind them and what it all means for chemistry. Just curious: what was one of the big ways you would say that a superheavy element has changed our understanding of chemistry?

mrcchapman34 karma

The greatest example is rearranging the periodic table. When we created neputunium and plutonium, everyone assumed that they belonged in the main body of the periodic table (so uranium was under tungsten) rather than separate like the lanthanides. As we made more of them, we discovered that everything we thought of was wrong - we had a whole new series, which we called the actinides.

Another great example is how flerovium behaves. It should be a homologue of lead (it's under lead in the periodic table). But... actually, it's more like mercury. WUT.

And, of course, we wouldn't have our space probes without these elements. Voyager, Mars rovers etc all depend on these elements to work. So we learn TONS. It's a huge prize in science.

rattatatouille12 karma

What about copernicium being theorized to be a gas at STP?

mrcchapman15 karma

Copernicium definitely isn't behaving as we expected without relativistic effects. There's some really interesting work going on with it at the moment by a team from the Paul Scherrer Institute (they go over to Dubna) and at GSI in Germany. We should get a better idea of how copernicium behaves relatively soon, I would think.

Zmenace2315 karma

Could any of these created elements already exist in nature?

mrcchapman29 karma

YES. In space, almost certainly - probably when neutron stars collide or a sun goes supernova.

On Earth, we think flerovium (element 114) might exist naturally on Earth somewhere. We've been looking since the 1970s - from the San Francisco BART network to stained glass windows in churches to brine shrimp in the Indian Ocean. So far, no luck. The heaviest we have found that was here since the Earth's formation is a small amount of plutonium.

ilrasso15 karma

You have any hope for an island of stability past 120?

mrcchapman18 karma

Yuri Oganessian feels there will be one around 120, and there are predictions there might be one after that. Much further beyond I think it's unlikely - relativistic effects mean that the elements are going to get really funky and strange (nuclei the shape of donuts, elements without electrons, just bare cations) so who knows.

Panq_the_tank15 karma

Somewhat related topic: what advice do you have to someone currently graduating with a M.S in Biochem that is highly interested in science journalism but doesn't necessarily have a lot of experience?

mrcchapman32 karma

Experience is important, even at the beginning, to start by trying to build a portfolio.

You've got a few options - there are sci comm postgrad courses or internships, and of course your own student paper - but you need to start writing.

Pitch to some of the magazines to see if you can do something; there's a host of opportunities for young writers. Start doing investigations - anyone can use the Freedom of Information Act to find out something. Look at people who could make an interesting profile piece and write about them. Get on Twitter and start networking (a lot of journalism is about who, not what, you know).

Most important of all: you're going to get rejections. Everyone does. Deep breath and try again.

cyanide_hollow10 karma

How do you determine which targets to bombard and what elements to use for bombardment?

mrcchapman12 karma

Great question! On a basic level, you want to use something that adds up to the right number of protons. But with the technique being used at the moment (something called hot fusion) you also want a lot of extra neutrons. These neutrons are cast off during the fusion reaction, helping to stabilise the nucleus and preventing it from exploding.

There aren't many light elements that have loads of extra neutrons, but one that is easily available is calcium-48 (20 protons, 28 neutrons). This is also something called 'doubly magic', which is a big advantage. So, now you know you're using calcium (20 protons), you choose your target depending on what you want to make. For example, if you want tennessine (117), you need to shoot calcium into berkelium (element 97).

We can't use calcium to make elements beyond 118 because past element 98 there isn't enough material of any of the elements to make a viable target. So we're now using slightly different reactions.

PyroDesu3 karma

I've heard that the possibility of the team in Dubna using a 50Ti beam (also, that it was their contingency if ORNL couldn't supply them the 249Bk they needed to work with their 48Ca beam, they would try a 243Am target with 50Ti). They might get past 218 that way.

mrcchapman3 karma

Dubna are using titanium 50 with the Superheavy Element Factory. The RIKEN team are using a vanadium beam.

HarryTruman9 karma

This is one of the most interesting AMAs I’ve ever seen. Thanks for giving us a glimpse at your personal fascination with elements! I don’t really have anything to add, but I’m curious about your thoughts on a few simple things:

  1. How did you cultivate your knowledge of chemistry, and how did you become such a skilled writer/speaker and educator? Somewhat ancillary, was there ever a “tipping point” where you suddenly knew you wanted to learn everything you could about elements?
  2. What (if any) citizen science can be done around enabling laymen to be involved in any way?
  3. Your username — /u/mrcchapman. Why a second “c” instead of a “k?”

Thanks again!

mrcchapman8 karma

1) Practice? I've been writing about science for 13 years. I became interested in these elements when the last four got their names. It captured my imagination for a few reasons - one of which was that there was a petition to name an element after Lemmy from Motorhead!

2) There's not really any citizen science in this area because it's both expensive and very dangerous if you don't know what you're doing (hey, we're dealing with nuclear material in a vacuum tube!).

3) You know, I have NO IDEA. Everyone assumes the 'mrc' stands for Mr C Chapman. Which I guess is an easy mistake. It doesn't, although I can't remember what the hell it does stand for when I made this account.

marlashannon8 karma

Where might these discoveries take us?

mrcchapman26 karma

That's the really cool thing: we don't know. At the moment, it looks like oganesson, the heaviest element we've found, doesn't behave as it should. Oganesson, if you look at a periodic table, is in the noble gases: the same group as helium, neon and argon. It should be an unreactive gas. But we think it's a reactive solid. All the rules stop applying the heavier we go.

It also lets us model the universe far better. At the moment the fastest computer in the world can only model a supernova to about the creation of lead - much more than that and it's too much computing power to manage. But we can create another 36 elements in the lab, so we can do very basic experiments and learn much more about how our universe is constructed.

_HiWay12 karma

For the compute power required, is this because of exponential growth in tracking decays/fission/fusion the heavier the elements get? If so, with all of the new advances in compute power, is this field for simulations also seeing progress?

mrcchapman19 karma

Yes and yes. This is one of the things Summit, the world's fastest computer at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, is currently being used for. Frontier, which will replace Summit in three years (and almost certainly be the new world record holder) is going to push us even further with models.

I've been inside Summit, by the way. It's INSANE: a space the size of four basketball courts filled with tens of thousands of NVidia graphics cards.

marlashannon3 karma

My son begins college next year and is interested in nano computer technologies. How will nano computing technology effect your field of study?

mrcchapman8 karma

Faster computers mean better models, which means we can predict what's likely to happen. One of the hardest tricks in element discovery is knowing what reaction to use, or where the thing you make is likely to go (position and energy in the detector). If your magnets are out by just 5% you will never see anything - and that's happened in the past, a team once found their magnets were out by 6% so missed the discoveries.

Better computers means fewer errors when it comes to making things.

doggydavito7 karma

I was a member of one of the 3 or 4 research teams globally working on superheavy elements and was an author on a few papers including one that confirmed the discovery of a new element.

I find it so funny this extremely niche area of science has managed to capture the public imagination and will be purchasing your book (mainly to see which of my former colleagues get a shout out).

Did you manage to speak with Darleane Hoffman? In my opinion she is a true national treasure.

mrcchapman4 karma

Darleane Hoffman is AMAZING. She's my heroine - battling through sexism from the 40s until today, missing out on einsteinium and fermium because they insisted a woman couldn't be a chemist and wouldn't let her in the lab, then going on to find plutonium in nature!

I didn't speak to her, although I read her book. As you know she's in her 90s and retired. I did speak to just about everyone else though: Mark and Nancy Stoyer, Ken Gregorich, Dawn Shaughnessy, the Oak Ridge team, the GSI team (except Armbruster), Oganessian and the Dubna team, RIKEN (except Morita) and quite a few others you will know!

bg-j386 karma

Did you talk at all with Prof. Sir Martyn Poliakoff who does The Periodic Table of Videos on YouTube? He's a professor at University of Nottingham. Seems like a fun guy. I've been binging his videos lately.

mrcchapman10 karma

Yes, I've met Martyn a few times. In fact I interviewed him a few months ago.

bg-j383 karma

That's awesome! Looking forward to reading your book!

mrcchapman2 karma

Thanks, I really hope you enjoy it.

marionbobarion6 karma

Is this book something that a common peasant with a passing interest in science would understand and find interesting, or do you need to have letters after your name?

mrcchapman7 karma

It's for anyone who is interested in science. I assume no knowledge, and while the science is there it's really about the personal stories and some crazy, hilarious tales about things that went on during the Cold War.

dnotel3 karma

You are not just a journalist but a salesman. Ordered.

mrcchapman2 karma

Oh, that's very kind of you. I hope you enjoy it!

TheRealExtrusion6 karma

Is this just a transparent attempt to drum up interest and sell your new book?

mrcchapman43 karma

Actually I want to talk about Rampart.

TheRealExtrusion7 karma

I was just being a naughty boy 👍

mrcchapman9 karma

Oh, you playful minx.

thermonuclearmuskrat6 karma

What is the best type of monkey?

RangaRedRascal5 karma

Can a lay person read the book and understand it? I find this fascinating but I don’t have a background in science

mrcchapman4 karma

You can. It's written assuming no knowledge - I try and lay things out as simply and clearly as possible. And the non-science stories are amazing, so it was a pleasure to write about them.

Rickythetraveller5 karma

Do any of the new elements being created behave like noble gases (extremely stable and non reactive), and if they do, are the noble gas elements longer lasting and safer to use in a variety of products?

mrcchapman5 karma

So far, no, they aren't behaving that way. That's why there's a lot of interest around oganesson, which is supposed to be a noble gas but almost certainly is not.

KuntaStillSingle4 karma

If you had a say in 1990 when IUPAC adopted a spelling for our 13th element, what would you have gone with?

mrcchapman5 karma

I'm British... ;)

EdwardDM103 karma

What do you think of SUPERHOT?

mrcchapman8 karma

SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter I've played in years!

CleanReserve43 karma

Since Asimov spent so much of his career writing about chemistry and physics, both for fiction stories and nonfiction, do you have any favourites of this author?

mrcchapman6 karma

Probably Nightfall. It's a great conceit - darkness for the first time. And the world goes bonkers. :)

skilledsapper3 karma

Between all countries which one is the most aggressive participant in this race?

mrcchapman9 karma

In the early days, the US. They ordered fighter pilots to fly into nuclear mushroom clouds to gather up debris in the hope of making a new element.

Today it's definitely Japan. They've got element fever, their team is hardcore (they spent nine years to see three atoms for their discovery of element 113) and they are bankrolled by the Emperor himself. They want new elements badly.

skilledsapper4 karma

Well al the power to them, If anyone can do it it’ll be the Japanese. Hopefully they are generous enough to share their research with the world.

Who is helping Japan? Americans have to be right?

mrcchapman6 karma

Yeah, the Japanese are getting their targets from Oak Ridge in America.

The Russians are also getting their targets from Oak Ridge in America, and also work with other US groups. So a US lab will be part of the team that discovers the next element for sure.

skilledsapper3 karma

Interesting, thank you for the information. One more question, who funds oak ridge?

mrcchapman4 karma

The US taxpayer. It's a Department of Energy lab. But a lot of Oak Ridge funding comes back through the innovations they make, which they then commercialise.

istareatpeople3 karma

what's the edison/tesla rivalry in today's superheavy element scene?

mrcchapman9 karma

It was Seaborg and Ghiorso (the Americans) Vs Flerov and Oganessian (the Russians). For 40 years the world had two different periodic tables, depending on whether you thought the Americans or Russians discovered things first. The end periodic table is... well, more or less a fudge between the two.

Today there's no real aggressive rivals, and Oganessian is the only one of the four still alive.

I-Am-Sam-Sam-I-Am3 karma

What is an element scientists are currently trying to create and why?

mrcchapman6 karma

Currently they are trying to create elements 119 and 120. They are the next ones that we haven't discovered yet. But there's also loads of work going on to find different isotopes of known elements. This is really the most exciting work, as a new element is really only part of the equation - it's the isotopes that really teach us about the world and have possible applications. Currently the Superheavy Element Factory in Russia (just been built!) is really going to ramp up that kind of work.

somersettler4 karma

Do all teams search for element n+1, n+2 where n is highest known? Or is it feasible for some of them to fuck that off and go straight for n+5 or n+10 without having found the intervening ones?

mrcchapman6 karma

Yeah, it is totally feasible. We had elements 114 and 116 way before elements 113 and 115, and some people have claimed discoveries of elements 120 and beyond (although never proven).

bhajack3 karma

Any advice in how to get into science journalism and communication? Sounds like a dream job, getting to meet interesting people an meet new people! You must love it!

mrcchapman6 karma

I do love it. Some days you are sitting down chatting with someone about Beyonce and you go 'wait... this person has a Nobel prize' and you wonder why they are talking to you.

My advice is pretty simple: get writing and get networking. You need to build a portfolio and make contacts. That way you can take your chances when they come.

PM_ME_UR_VAGINA_YO3 karma

Im super tired so sorry if im missing something, but what is pop science history?

Edit: and what do you think new elements could be useful for? Would there be any elements we don't already know of with half-lives of more than a second or so?

mrcchapman21 karma

Popular science history. Basically it's a bit of science, a bit of history, and it's written so you don't need a degree to understand it.

Sorry if you were expecting an epic rap battle of Tesla Vs Edison.

iorgfeflkd2 karma

Why has 119 been so much harder to achieve than 118?

mrcchapman5 karma

We can't use calcium. This was used for the previous five elements, as one of its isotopes, calcium-48, is great for making elements. The problem is that to make element 119, we would have to use a target made of einsteinium. There isn't enough einsteinium on Earth to make a target.

So... we can't use calcium. And titanium (or vanadium) beams just aren't as good at making elements.

diff22 karma

I've been reading a lot of stories that deal with chemistry lately which got me thinking of elements and chemical reactions. Anyways, I was looking into the creation of new elements, and it seems like all of them are trying to be created by colliding them in a particle accelerator then trying to detect them before they disappear.

I do realize that's how things are normally done, and it has worked in the past. But I was wondering if a different process could come up with a desired result. That instead of super accelerating molecules if it was possible to super cool molecules to near absolute zero temperatures, and have them "combine" in that way to form a new element?

mrcchapman5 karma

The problem is the combining part - to get over the inherent repulsion of the nucleus you really need to fire things together, and that means hot temperatures of a couple of hundred degrees.

Monaco_2 karma

Hello! Have you visited/have any thoughts about MSU’s FRIB?

mrcchapman3 karma

I was just talking to Witek Nazarewicz the other day about it. Going there in September or October and I am REALLY EXCITED.

saiyaniam2 karma

You have any comments on bob lazars claims of 115 stability?

mrcchapman5 karma

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

saiyaniam5 karma

Any serious comments? I think it's crap, but I'm not educated in the elements

mrcchapman5 karma

It's just not right. Moscovium is off the island of stability and would be terrible fuel for alien spaceships.

Hump4TrumpVERIFIED2 karma

How do you know if an element is created? They only exist for a couple microseconds How do you know what the properties of the element are?

mrcchapman9 karma

You look for radioactive decay. You know that elements decay through alpha radiation, so you set up your machine to look for that. That gets rid of 2 protons, 2 neutrons - turning into an element you know. So if you try and make 118, and you get readings for something, 116, 114, 112... then you know you've made 118 because of the decay chain.

Another way is time of flight - you can basically measure the speed of things pinging about in the machine and work out its mass from there.

photon7501 karma

Can any of the new elements being discovered have or help achieve zero resistance at higher temperatures, opening the realm to super conductors to the general public?

mrcchapman1 karma

Not really, the quantities we're making - single atom at a time - really doesn't lend itself to investigating this application. There's been some really interesting research on superconductors though in general that has come out this year, and we're gradually getting warmer (relatively speaking).

ShatterPoints1 karma

Whats your opinion on the recent study done which shows a single neutron star merger created a lot (around 50%) of the r-process heavy isotopes for our solar system? Was there anything from that hypothesis which is/was new to you? And how does it help us in our own ability to create new elements, or re-create rarer ones?

mrcchapman1 karma

It's really interesting. Neutron star mergers are something that I only briefly touched on, because I'm more interested in synthesis done in labs. But nature informs our understanding in the lab too, so the more we know about astrophysics, the more it can inform our searches. Perhaps the biggest implication for us is searching for superheavies in nature - we think they are out there and researchers have been looking for traces of heavy nuclide collisions in olevine crystals in meteorites. So there is a link.

DonyellFreak1 karma

What do you think of the big bang theory television show?

mrcchapman8 karma

It's a bit bland for my sense of humour. I much prefer It's Always Sunny or Brooklyn 99.

Green_Eyez231 karma

This might be a really stupid question, how do you know what an element is not on earth if you’ve never encountered it before? What properties do you follow? Like is it solid like gold? Is it a gas like nitrogen(or liquid at crazy cold temperatures)

mrcchapman3 karma

We know the size and age of the Earth, and we know the radioactive half-life of the elements, which tells us how long they'd stick around. As elements get heavier and heavier, they get fewer and fewer because of how they are made in nature. So we can calculate 1) how much was probably around when the Earth formed, and 2) how much is probably still around.

Minirub1 karma

I have zero knowledge about this field, bit it sounds really interesting. So your team is working to discover heavy elements. Does that mean that all lighter elements have already been discovered?

mrcchapman1 karma

I'm a journalist, so I just visit the teams.

But yes, all the lighter elements have been discovered. We filled in the gaps in the periodic table shortly after the second world war.

NerdBrenden1 karma

Is there a limit to the elements that can be created?

Or is the limit just based on knowledge and technology?

mrcchapman3 karma

There is a limit (we think), but it's around 172/173, so we are way, way off at the moment. If that's right, around 1/3 of possible elements haven't been discovered yet.

Brunurb11 karma

Is there any chance that the search for and discovery/creation of future superheavy elements could destroy the world?

Should someone set up a website a la http://hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com/ to reassure humanity?

mrcchapman10 karma

Enrico Fermi took bets with the guards on the Trinity test - the first ever nuclear bomb detonation - as to whether the sky would catch fire and incinerate the world.

He was kidding, but the guards didn't know that.

In short: no.

mantis_bog1 karma

Do your chapters begin with you in first person describing how you're walking to a lab or some other location and then proceed to a physical description of the scientist that you're talking to?

mrcchapman5 karma

Some of them do, yeah; I mix it up between historic events and my own adventures. So you might get me asking about the Japanese team's space monkey mascots or dropping a rod of nuclear material, or you might get a US pilot flying into a mushroom cloud or a USSR colonel discovering a secret weapon.

So it's part travelogue, part history. But I hope you get a full mental picture of the scientists from my descriptions.

Cidopuck-1 karma

Why do you have to use phrases like "breaking the periodic table"?

mrcchapman7 karma

Because "re-evaluating the theoretical periodicity of exotic superheavy nuclei due to relativistic effects" isn't very catchy.

karlzam-5 karma

how does being a goddamb journalist qualify you to talk about chemistry? also how the fuck is this breaking the periodic table?

mrcchapman3 karma

Hmm. Well... my masters degree is probably a good start. That's in pharmacy though, but still involved quite a bit of organic chemistry and pharmacology. Then there's the MRSC after my name - that's Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Suppose that helps. I guess writing for Chemistry World, Chemist+Druggist, Nature, Nature Chemistry and New Scientist probably gives me some kind of experience, too.

That and visiting every single lab that's involved in element discovery, interviewing the people who made these discoveries first-hand, and asking the members there, chemists and physicists, to fact-check every chapter to ensure things are accurate.

karlzam0 karma

I see, I have to apologize, after reading "breaking the periodic table" I assumed that you can't possibly know what the fuck you were talking about. Anyways, I still can't see it being broken.

mrcchapman1 karma

That's OK, it's fine to query someone's qualifications. It's because the elements no longer follow periodic law, which is what the table in its current form shows. Oganesson, for example, is not a noble gas.