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posted by Fnord666 on Wednesday June 13, @01:49PM   Printer-friendly
from the he-ain't-heavy-he's-my-nucleus dept.

Nobelium — element number 102 on the periodic table — has an atomic nucleus that is deformed into the shape of an American football, scientists report in the June 8 Physical Review Letters. The element is the heaviest yet to have its nucleus sized up.

By probing individual nobelium atoms with a laser, the team gauged the oblong shape of three nobelium isotopes: nobelium-252, -253 and -254. These different forms of the element each contain 102 protons, but varying numbers of neutrons. The shape is not uncommon for nuclei, but the researchers also determined that nobelium-252 and -254 contain fewer protons in the center of the nucleus than the outer regions — a weird configuration known as a “bubble nucleus” (SN: 11/26/16, p. 11).

The measurements are in agreement with previous theoretical predictions. “It nicely confirms what we believe,” says study coauthor Witold Nazarewicz, a theoretical nuclear physicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Elements heavier than uranium, number 92, aren’t found in significant quantities in nature, and must be created artificially. Currently, the heaviest element on the periodic table is number 118, oganesson (SN Online: 2/12/18). But scientists hope to go even bigger, in search of a potential “island of stability,” a proposed realm in which elements are more stable than other heavy elements.

While many superheavy elements decay in just fractions of a second, some theoretical calculations suggest that elements inhabiting this proposed hinterland might persist longer, making them easier to study. Better understanding the heaviest known elements, including the shape of their atomic nuclei, could help scientists gauge what lies just out of reach.


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  • (Score: 2) by ledow on Wednesday June 13, @02:40PM (4 children)

    by ledow (5567) on Wednesday June 13, @02:40PM (#692344) Homepage

    I would imagine that, if it were possible for some super-heavy element to be stable for even a useful amount of time, that stars and universe-forming and whatever else goes on outside of Earth would have made them and, being stable, they would have survived.

    Especially if there's a "range" of super-heavy elements that very, very, very slowly degrade only into each other.

    If it was stable, it'd still be around. And pretty much there's nothing to indicate that the trend is anything but shorter-and-shorter half-lives.

    Even if you find a semi-stable one (hours, days, weeks, months), it's not going to be all that useful to you except to say "told you so".

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  • (Score: 2) by urza9814 on Wednesday June 13, @03:41PM

    by urza9814 (3954) on Wednesday June 13, @03:41PM (#692371) Journal

    You make bigger elements by fusing smaller ones, so if the requisite smaller particles aren't stable, then you've got a MUCH smaller chance of creating a large stable particle naturally. It'd still happen occasionally, but there wouldn't be much, so it seems rather plausible that we might not have found any yet. And as you've said, it might not be permanently stable. Unless it's created naturally here on Earth, we probably wouldn't know about anything that's stable for less than thousands or even millions of years. The half-life of Americium is only around 400 years, but you've probably got devices which are using that element in your own home (it's common in smoke detectors), and as far as I can tell there's no known naturally occurring source. So we know we can find unstable elements that do not occur here naturally, we've done it before. And we know they might be useful, because they have been in the past.

    But either way....the results matter less than knowing what they are IMO. If we find something stable where we predicted it, that's great, it means our theories are pretty solid. If we don't, then we can use that data to improve those theories which is potentially even more useful since it would tell us something we didn't already know/predict.

  • (Score: 2) by vux984 on Wednesday June 13, @11:37PM

    by vux984 (5045) on Wednesday June 13, @11:37PM (#692604)

    "I would imagine that, if it were possible for some super-heavy element to be stable for even a useful amount of time, that stars and universe-forming and whatever else goes on outside of Earth would have made them and, being stable, they would have survived."

    Maybe they did and do. But in sufficiently small quantities and/or sufficiently rarified interactions (neutron star collisions... etc) that we can't detect them in regular interstellar spectra, and with short enough half lives that none are left on earth.

    "Even if you find a semi-stable one (hours, days, weeks, months), it's not going to be all that useful to you except to say "told you so"."

    We have yet to find any Californium in nature, but we synthesized isotopes with a half life of 900 years, and it has practical uses.

  • (Score: 2) by dry on Thursday June 14, @04:36AM (1 child)

    by dry (223) on Thursday June 14, @04:36AM (#692700) Journal

    They actually mean relatively stable. Instead of a half life measured in micro-seconds, perhaps seconds or even days and according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_stability [wikipedia.org] a few scientists argue for millions of years.
    As others mentioned, they're only going to be rarely created through natural processes and our only hope of finding one in the wild would be as a cosmic ray. Some cosmic rays travel close enough to the speed of light that even with a short half life measured in micro-seconds, they can travel across a large chunk of the visible universe.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 14, @05:23PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 14, @05:23PM (#693026)
      Merging neutron stars like the recently detected GW170817 [soylentnews.org] are the way that really heavy elements are generally created. If you have two massive objects each of which is made up of degenerate matter consisting mostly of neutrons and they come together and produce a violent explosion, it's a good bet that there might be some really, really heavy elements in the debris. Might be interesting to look at the spectra of the remnant of GW170817 and see if the spectra of transuranic elements are visible, and perhaps we might also see telltale signs of the weird spectra of elements still unknown to us. If they have half-lives in the months or years they ought to still be visible today.