Magazine article Science News

Einstein's Invisible Hand: Is Relativity Making Metal Act like a Noble Gas?

Magazine article Science News

Einstein's Invisible Hand: Is Relativity Making Metal Act like a Noble Gas?

Article excerpt

Superheavy element 114 should be a metal. Controversial data from an experiment in Dubna, Russia, suggest instead that effects from Einstein's theory of relativity might make the element's chemistry closer to that of a noble gas, like radon. If the results are confirmed, it would be the most significant departure yet from the predictable patterns in the periodic table of the elements.

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Uranium (element 92, for the 92 protons in its nucleus) is the element with the highest atomic number commonly found in nature. In the lab, scientists have created additional elements up to 118 (with the exception of 117).

An element's characteristic chemical reactions depend on the arrangements of its outermost electrons, and elements with the same outer electron arrangement share a column in the periodic table. Artificial elements such as 114, which was first made in the 1990s, also in Dubna, should be no exception. "Theory says that 114 ... should have properties similar to those of lead," which lies directly above it in the periodic table, says theoretical chemist Valeria Pershina of GSI, a heavy-element research center in Darmstadt, Germany.

The elements however are not identical, Pershina explains. In particular, nuclei with more protons attract electrons more strongly. Those electrons orbit faster, and according to Einstein's special theory of relativity, time for them stretches out. As a result, some of the electrons' orbits are fighter than in lighter elements, affecting that element's chemistry.

But such anomalies, which have been observed in heavy elements such as 105 and are even visible in gold, should not be so large as to threaten the element's standing in the periodic table, Pershina says.

In the current experiment, chemist Heinz Gaggeler of the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, and his collaborators produced nuclei of element 114 with a particle accelerator at Dubna's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. …

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