How to put a new element on the periodic table

Two new elements were officially added to the periodic table this month. The elements were discovered years ago, but they needed approval from an international committee before they could be placed on the famous chart.

For starters, elements 114 and 116 don’t occur in nature. So don’t look for them in your backyard. That’s because they were made in a lab. Which may seem like cheating, but that’s how it’s done these days.

The process of making a new element can be summarized thusly:

  1. Smash together atoms of two elements.
  2. Hope their nuclei fuse.
  3. If they do, you have a new element. Congratulations!

Now, before you go off smashing atoms together, please note that it’s not as easy as this incredibly oversimplified explanation makes it seem. With elements 114 and 116 in particular, the end product is tiny — and exists for less than a second before it decays away.

So, it’s not like you have a chunk of metal to show off. Instead, you get pages and pages of computer data from advanced sensors.

A new element is made perhaps once out of a billion billion collisions. That’s a billion billion. The experiments usually last for a month, and maybe they get one or two indications they’ve made something of interest.

So once you pull off your one-in-a-billion-billion shot, other scientists have to check your work by doing it again. You can see how this process could take a while.

Once the international committee decides your element is legitimate, you get an invite from IUPAC to give your element a real name. Read more here.

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