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Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table

Kit Chapman
Bloomsbury Sigma
304 pp.
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Nuclear physicist Georgy Flyorov did not like his team deviating from the research program he had set and would often punish such behavior. So it is perhaps not surprising that when Yuri Oganessian went rogue and discovered cold fusion in the 1970s, the young scientist received an indifferent expression from Flyorov and a gruff order to return to the agenda that had been agreed on: traditional experiments firing particles at high energy. Such tales are common in stories of the early hunt for so-called “superheavy” elements—the chemical elements with atomic numbers 104 to 120. As Kit Chapman reveals in his new book, Superheavy, it is the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of science, as much as grit and drive, that leads to the greatest breakthroughs.

Chapman begins his story with Enrico Fermi, the scrappy Italian physicist who claimed, erroneously, to have discovered elements 93 and 94. As the first scientist to develop a technique for a phenomenon called “neutron capture,” Fermi paved the way for a number of element discoveries to come. From Rome, we travel to Berlin for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, and then on to Berkeley, California, where scientists began the hunt for the transuranic elements (elements heavier than uranium) in 1939.

Chapman does an admirable job of bringing to the forefront the incredible contributions of women scientists to this endeavor. One such story is that of nuclear chemist Darleane Hoffman, who was told repeatedly as a young university student in the 1940s that she should set her sights on becoming a chemistry teacher. Instead, she would go on to hold appointments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos, and University of California, Berkeley, and earned her place in history by confirming the existence of Seaborgium (element 106). Hoffman achieved this despite being denied a part in the discovery of einsteinium and fermium—her security clearance was “delayed”—and having another discovery retracted when a collaborator fabricated data.

In the final third, Chapman takes readers on a tour of the modern element discovery world. Tales from RIKEN in Japan, GSI in Germany, and other international laboratories complement stories from the early post–Cold War period, including anecdotes about collaborations between researchers at Berkeley and those in Dubna, Russia.

Chapman and the scientists he interviews acknowledge that at this point, the elements being investigated are unlikely to have obvious applications. Although some transuranic elements have proven useful in medical science and other applications, the elements beyond 118 are very unstable. Practical use of these materials, then, is not the point. But then, it has never been the point for many scientists in this field. Even the honor of choosing the names of new elements—a topic into which Chapman dives perhaps too deeply—is not the point. It is the acquisition of knowledge, the drive to expand and enrich our understanding of the world, that many would say is the purpose of such an endeavor.

About the author

The reviewer is at Accenture Federal Services, Arlington, VA 22203, USA.