Sunday, May 04, 2008

Unbibium or Unbelievium?

Wow... Scientists at the University of Jerusalem have made an extraordinary claim. If correct it would be the science scoop of this young century, if it fizzles out it would be a more spectacular science blooper than cold fusion and polywater combined... Much is at stake here!

Amnon Marinov and co-workers claim to have found a new chemical element and not just any either: their temporarily baptised Unbibium (aka eka-Thorium) would be the first super-heavy element to have been found in nature (and not synthesised by atom bashing, like so many other transuranium and some transactinide heavy elements). Marinov et al sifted through a pile of Thorium atoms, one at a time, using an advanced mass spectrometer. Alongside various super-heavy species, usually combinations of heavy atoms, inter-metallics, oxides and hydrides that all form as a kind of side-show when mass spectrometry is used, they also encountered a species with an alleged atomic weight of 292 and atomic number of 122. If this proves to be a single-atom-species (and not the sort of multi-atom-species that are often found inadvertently when using this kind of measurements) then it would indeed be a new chemical element and one that has in fact been predicted from quantum mechanical theory (see for example the much studied so-called 'island of stability').

Marinov and his group, hopefully not prematurely, claim to have been able to exclude any rival species for which the alleged (Z = 122, W = 292) new element could easily be mistaken.

Personally I find the claim both fantastical and plausible at once and hope sincerely that Marinov and his colleagues aren't about to burn their fingers in a manner so spectacular that few scientists before have, because of the extreme importance of this to-be-corroborated discovery.

Lemmesee, Unbibium (from Latin: 1 = un, 2 = bi, so 122: Un-bi-bi-um) would:

  • be the first period 8, g-block element of the periodic table of the elements to be found or synthesised,

  • be extremely stable: Marinov et all calculated a radioactive half-life of over 100 million years (a claim that's hotly contested by some),

  • be rare, yet not that rare: the prospect of preparing the element in milligram amounts (way more than modern chemists need to determine its chemical properties) would be very real, owing also of course to its nuclear stability,

  • be a member of a new group of elements, analogous to the lanthanides and actinides, which could be dubbed the eka-actinides or super-actinides,

  • be chemically analogous to Thorium (hence the alternative name eka-Thorium), although with such a massive electron cloud chemical properties of the element may deviate from simple predictions, due to relativistic effects,

  • be another crowning tribute to the predictive power of nuclear quantum physics.


It's unlikely I'll be able to buy some Unbibium dioxide (UbbO2) in my life time for backyard chemical experimentation. For now, I'll maintain the healthy scepticism that's appropriate and call the elusive element Unbelievium. But let science provide the compelling evidence needed to turn me into a believer...

And here's an article that deftly explains why being sceptical about this discovery at this early point in time is the right thing to do: it's really about the good old signal-to-noise ratio...

There's more scepticism/criticism, in particular on the alleged longevity of the 122/292 isotope, here...

Rolf-Dietmar Herzberg, of the University of Liverpool, is almost hostile to the discovery:
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, who helped confirm the detection of element 118 in 2006, told Chemistry World they were too busy to check through Marinov's research.

'The popular vote is one of ridicule and I cannot fault that,' Herzberg sums up.

Marinov says he has submitted the article to the journals Nature and Nature Physics, but both turned it down without sending it for peer review. 'I am not changing the article and hope to get it published in another journal.'

The latter is confirmation that Marinov's paper hasn't been peer reviewed yet (there appeared to be some confusion about that). Looks like he will have his work cut out convincing the science community of the validity of his claims...

11 Comments:

At 6:14 PM, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Why do I smell a rat? That "bibi" with that "un" almost surely points to a practical joke.

To call something by a name that contains "bibi" here is almost always a hint about something untrustworthy.

So I wouldn't bet any money on that one...

 
At 7:50 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Hi Snoops,

No, no rat in that respect: the provisional name Unbibium (chemical symbol Ubb) may sound risible, yet it's IUPAC's agreed way to name elements whose existence has not yet been completely confirmed, prior to when scientists start squabbling over which dead nuclear scientist's name will be the basis of the new element's permanent and official name. We're still quite a while off and that moment may never actually come, depending on corroboration/non-corroboration. In the mean time the elusive element 122 will be referred to as Unbibium or simply... element 122...

 
At 8:16 PM, Blogger Bar Kochba said...

That's a lot more than the University of "Palestine" has ever given us. Score another one for the Jews.

 
At 3:35 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Bar:

How childish a comment can one make, huh?

 
At 8:55 PM, Blogger Bar Kochba said...

It just goes to show our contributions to the world while our enemies give nothing but hatred and terror.

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Bar:

Apart from the small [cough!] fact that this potential discovery requires corroboration which doesn't appear to be forthcoming... This story seems to have died a death, as far as I can tell. This of course is no concern to you, as long as the story confirms the multitude of belief systems under which you toil...

 
At 2:03 AM, Blogger Bar Kochba said...

I was simply showing the amazing level of Israel' contribution to the world, especially in the department of science, while the barbarians have done nothing.

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Bar:

As I've said before, you simply mirror what your opponents say about Jews and in that sense you both deserve one another. In essence, the stereotyping of an entire people as "barbarians" (or "pigs" or whatever else) is simply racism, nothing more.

 
At 8:44 PM, Blogger Bar Kochba said...

Of course. Gunning down teenagers while studying is one of the hallmarks of civilization.

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Gert, did you retire?

 
At 6:37 PM, Blogger Gert said...

No, normal service will be resumed at some point, Madze.

 

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