Want to name an element on the periodic table? Piece of cake! Just follow this simple, step-by-step guide.

The first thing you have to do is to discover an element. At the moment, the periodic table has no blank spots to be filled: all elements with 118 or fewer protons have been found already. Though luck. Moreover, since very crowded nuclei don’t stick together for long, there aren’t any of these very heavy elements in nature. So you’ll have to manufacture them.

This might require some work.

Simplifying (a lot), to create a new element you have to smash together two existing ones and hope they stick. For example, to find the the lastest four earlier this year, scientists put Calcium atoms in an accelerator and threw them at target Berkelium atoms.

All elements in the universe formed in some version of that method, fusing together lighter ones. Inside the core of stars, for example, this reaction can produce energy, keeping atoms fizzing around and fueling the star. Very heavy elements (meaning heavier than Iron), however, consume energy to fuse together, so they need an energy source to do it. The staggring energy released during a star explosion is more than enough, and that’s where most heavy elements come from.


Chi ha fabbricato gli elementi. CC-BY-SA: Cmglee, via Wikipedia

You don’t need the nucleus to stay together long: a hundred-thousandth of a billionth of a second will do. But you need enough time data to figure out how many protons it has. Counting neutrons isn’t required. Nobody cares about neutrons.

Ok, step 2: publish your discovery on a scientific journal and wait for someone to replicate your experiment.

Only once your atom has been reproduced by someone else, you can move to step 3: get in touch with the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). They will analyze your results and eventually officially announce your discovery, giving the element a temporary name.

Congratulations! As the discoverer, you get to take the final step: pick a name. Which you’ll have to agree on with the thousand of people you must have worked with to make it this far. You can choose whatever name you want. As long as it is after a mythological reference, a scientist, place, mineral or property, and that IUPAC approved it.

All in all, naming an element isn’t too different from naming a baby: for example there’s a bunch of rules, and your collaborators have to agree on the name too. But at least the first step for babies is a little easier…


Cover photo: Pizza lab, CC-BY-NC-ND clement127, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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