A Chemistry Secret

Read This Only if You Promise Never to Tell Anybody

There was an item in the news last week about two new elements that have been found here on earth that will now be added to the Periodic Table of Elements.

Some of you will be familiar with what the Periodic Table is. Some not. It depends on how far along you got in studying chemistry in school. In high school they show you the table, which lists all these dozens and dozens of elements. In college, if you want to pass chemistry you actually have to memorize them all, in order. They start at one, which is H for Hydrogen, and they go up to 96, or at least they did when I was in school. I was unable to memorize them except for the briefest time just before they were giving the test in which I had to list them. I am not proud of how I did that. But I did not cheat. Sort of. It was a bit like Clinton’s famous statement, “I did not have sex with that woman.” More about that later. [expand]

To tell the truth, I truly believed that the total number of elements even today is still 96. One might think that with all these people digging around for so many centuries, they would surely have discovered every one of them. I was therefore truly surprised to hear that when you include the new ones, and the total is now 116.

This is very bad news for those in college today.

Well, as it turns out, the total number when I went to college WAS the total number to be found in the ground, both then and now. It was just that since then, they have started adding new elements to the total because eager scientists were artificially manufacturing them in laboratories.

There are people in charge of determining what is and is not an element. But back shortly after I graduated from college, they began to be confronted by products coming out of lab experiments that were absolutely identical to the elements that were in the ground, but in one way or another different. These were new elements, were they not? What were these people in charge to do?

I think that if this process had first started to happen today, they would not have included them. They would have said they are artificial, not organic, not natural. But back then, when these new creations first began, the focus on environmentalism was not yet in full flower. And so, they said, well they are truly elements, however they got here. And they are on the earth. What a great achievement for mankind! A new element! So we have to let them in.

Of course, being scientists, they had to set up strict rules that would have to be met for proposed new elements. And reading about Element 116, which right now is in this long, drawn-out, two-year process of being assigned a name, I learned just how an element qualifies. As I said, it has to be different from any other, and it has to be here on earth.

Element 116 was created over a long process in a lab. Every day, scientists would choose two special atoms to bang together that had never been banged together before. The atoms they chose were the same ones day after day. Nothing would happen. But they kept at it. After months and months, after a billion, billion collisions—they counted them—suddenly when two of these banged together, they stuck—their nuclei having merged. And there it was, a new element.

And yet it was not there for more than an instant. The instant was so short you wouldn’t have even seen it. And after that instant, the merged nuclei collapsed. Or something. Anyway, it would be gone.

But then they would submit all the printouts and paperwork confirming this had happened. The new element had been here. On Earth. Even for this very brief length of time.

The scientists minding the Periodic Table would say, well, it was just once that it was here. Maybe it was a fluke. Do it again. And not only that, we will, after you do it again, have other scientists bang together those particular atoms and see if they can duplicate this. If they can, you’re in.

And so that’s what happened. And now, although this new element has yet to be assigned a name or even given two letters, such as Ru or Ag, which former chemistry students will realize are the letters for other elements, there is the excitement of anticipation running rampant in the chemistry world as people contemplate the final approval of Element 116 and the upcoming search for what will be Element 117.

I have no idea how chemistry students today can remember the 116 elements when I had such trouble with 96. I did memorize my 96, as I said, to pass my chemistry exam. But my memorization was only for a brief time, although not nearly so brief as the time on earth of Element 116.

Here’s what I did.

Four minutes before the test was supposed to begin in the big auditorium, with the passing out of the test booklets, I went to the Men’s Room. In the Men’s Room, in a stall, I sat there and began reading the names of all 96 elements over and over and over that I had printed on a piece of paper. I continued mumbling them to myself while looking at the paper, and then I crumpled up the paper, threw it in the trash and then continued mumbling the names quietly over and over as I strolled into the auditorium, found myself a seat, listened to the monitor up front telling us the test would begin and that now was the time for us to open our booklets and, using the pencil provided, begin.

I picked up the pencil. Then, still mumbling, I furiously turned the pages of the booklet until I found where the question was to write down the 96 elements in order below. And so there, even before I wrote my name on the front of the booklet, I scribbled them all down.

Then I sat back, smiled, let out a sigh of relief, and that is the last I ever had to deal with the Periodic Table of Elements.

Please don’t tell anybody about this. [/expand]


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