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Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table

Kit Chapman
Bloomsbury Sigma
304 pp.
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Kit Chapman begins his story of the early hunt for so-called “superheavy” elements 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 search 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 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 the University of California, Berkeley, and earn her place in history by confirming the existence of seaborgium (element 106).

In the final third of the book, Chapman takes readers on a tour of the modern world of element discovery. 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.

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. Even the honor of choosing the names of newly discovered elements—a topic into which Chapman dives perhaps too deeply—is not the point. It is the acquisition of knowledge, the drive to expand our understanding of the world, that many would say is the purpose of such an endeavor.


For a full-length review of Superheavy, see “Our autumn reading list,” Science 365, 972 (2019).

About the author

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