It’s time to rewrite the chemistry books again. IUPAC has formally proposed names for the four newest superheavy elements: nihonium (element 113), moscovium (115), tennessine (117), and oganesson (118).
It would have been pretty neat to have a J on the periodic table, but alas, it is not yet to be. Element 113’s name comes from “Nihon,” which is meant to directly connect element 113 to its place of discovery in Japan; nihon literally means the land of the rising sun in Japanese. “Nipponium” was another candidate, but the word already had a history with chemists. In 1908, Masataka Ogawa gave nipponium as the name for element 43, but the name was never officially accepted, because other chemists were unable to replicate Ogawa’s work.
Twenty years later, it finally became clear that Ogawa had actually found an element, but not the one he thought: “nipponium” was actually element 75, which had already become known as rhenium by then. Element 75 is one row directly below element 43, which means that the two elements share similar chemical characteristics. The Japanese team who discovered element 113 told IUPAC that they had chosen the name “nihonium” (Nh) in part to honor the trailblazing work of Dr. Ogawa.
Tennessine (Ts) is named in honor of Oak Ridge, UTenn and Vanderbilt, which contributed to its discovery. Moscovium (Mc) and oganesson (Og) were discovered by a team from the Joint Research for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and folks from Lawrence Livermore. Moscovium’s etymology should be pretty obvious, but oganesson is actually named for living physicist Yuri Oganesson, who not only led the Russian team but also contributed to the discovery of dubnium, bohrium, and seaborgium.
This will be only the second time an element has been named after a living person. The first time was actually seaborgium, which was named after Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry who contributed to the discovery of so many elements that he actually had to figure out a new way to draw the periodic table: the lanthanides and actinides, those two free-floating rows at the bottom of the periodic table, which the world went on to adopt.
These four superheavy elements substantiate the idea of the “island of stability,” a niche in atom size where normally-unstable large nuclei are configured in a way that doesn’t instantly disintegrate. Seaborg was one of the first pioneering chemists who tried to synthesize stable, superheavy elements: “something the stars did not leave behind,” with a size beyond any element found in the natural world. But as elements get bigger, their physical size starts to overcome nuclear binding forces, and the nuclei start to fly apart as proton repels proton.
The island of stability is predicated on the idea that the nuclei of atoms have an arrangement of quantum energy levels that’s similar to electron valence shells. Spherical nuclei with neatly filled energy levels are relatively more stable, the theory goes, while weirdly shaped nuclei are, well, weird. Element 117, tennessine, washed up on the shores of the island of stability, looking like Methuselah with a half-life of 78 milliseconds in comparison with similarly sized nuclei that only last microseconds.
As-yet-undiscovered element 120 is the smallest one we expect to land on the actual island, because it has the magic number of nucleons that makes it a “stable” spheroid nucleus. Either way, these heavy elements are all radioactive, so we won’t be seeing them in consumer products anytime soon. But they serve to validate and refine our predictions of nuclear theory, which we use for trivial things like medical imaging, electrical power and national defense.
If you’re wondering why the new names have the suffixes they do, it’s because of the chemistry of each individual element. Part of IUPAC’s purpose on this planet is to manage chemical naming conventions, so that scientists can wade through the harrowing minefield of chemistry without getting completely lost. Because of this, names in chemistry are blessedly predictable because IUPAC rules their construction and approval with an iron fist. (Get it? Iron? I’ll see myself out.) Elements 113 and 115, nihonium and moscovium respectively, get the “-ium” suffix because they’re found toward the leftward side of the periodic table, belonging to groups 1-16. This is where we find the alkali earth metals like sodium and calcium, and also the transition metals like iron and copper. Tennessine gets “-ine” because it’s technically a halogen, like fluorine and chlorine. Oganesson is suffixed with “-on” because it’s in the same group as argon and neon.
Among the proposed alternatives to IUPAC’s nominations are ahundredandthirteenium, oneandahafnium and godzillium – the latter being “mythical, Japanese, and worthy of an element that is unnatural, radioactive and rapidly self-destructive.” Personally, I’m hoping to get element 113 renamed “eleventythreenium.” You can weigh in on Nature Chem’s Twitter thread, or express your reservations or ideas to IUPAC until November.