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Ross Murray's Border Report
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Ross Murray
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is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at ross_murray@sympatico.ca
Posted 01.10.16
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

The element in the room

Scientists recently discovered four new chemical elements. It's unclear to me whether these elements already existed but hadn't yet been tracked down or whether the scientists created them, God-like, out of thin air by toying with the very fabric of the universe, a sentence that often ends with " -- and then things went horribly, horribly wrong."

So far so good, I guess, because we haven't been instantly ripped apart by the cataclysmic unravelling of all cosmic matter and anti-matter, which is a helluva way to start the work week.

The new elements were synthesized by scientists in Japan, Russia, and the U.S., giving the world elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. Created by bashing nuclei together (which sounds a lot more fun than it probably is), these new elements are highly volatile. They exist for mere fractions of a second before decaying, making them the Hollywood marriages of the periodic table.

What appears to especially please the science community besides the elements themselves – because who knows what practical use they can be applied to; improved laundry detergent, probably –- is the fact that the four additions neatly fill the gaps in the seventh row of the periodic table. Who knew that chemists were so anal? Probably anyone married to a chemist, actually, but let's move on.

Congratulations to the scientists, but now that they've done their job, they should sit back, brush off their Nobel speeches and drink whatever weird chemistry cocktails they drink, because there's a job at hand that cannot be left to the scientists. These new elements need new names. Team Humanities -- assemble!

Right now the elements have placeholder names: ununtrium (Uut or element 113), ununpentium (Uup, element 115), ununseptium (Uus, element 117), and ununoctium (Uuo, element 118). All those "un's" sound like they make negatives of a negative, which makes a positive, which is just the kind of monkeying around that caused me to barely pass Chemistry in Grade 11.

According to an article in The Guardian, the formal naming of the elements is now up to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The IUPAC's guidelines dictate that new elements can be named only after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist. But that's just the kind of rigid thinking we've come to expect from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Opening up the naming of elements would add a certain pizzazz to the periodic table, which right now is somewhat –- how do you say? –- academic. The exception is the symbol for plutonium, which was abbreviated "PU" as a childish joke by one of its discoverers, Glenn Seaborg. Get it? "Pee-yuu!" Oh that Glenn -- ! Funny, radioactive Glenn!

Element 106, incidentally, is named after Seaborg -- seaborgium -- and that's it for the educational portion of today's column.

Back to the naming: Why shouldn't these new elements have names that are as much fun as an Erlenmeyer flask on a Friday night?

For example, we could stick fairly closely to the "mythological concepts" guideline by naming the elements after some contemporary myths, like santaclausium or G-spotium. Or what about beyoncéum? She's a goddess, after all.

What about a beloved character like Bugs Bunny, although he tended to defy physics more than chemistry. Still, wouldn't you want to live in a world that had an element named "whatsupdocium"? And wouldn't an element called "seussium" be exactly the type of element Dr. Seuss would name?

I would love to see an element called "smokemifyougotium" but would be warry of anything called "destroyum." I can't wait until they discover "aha!-ium," which is the element of surprise -- you weren't expecting an exclamation mark in the middle there, were you? Speaking of punctuation, I put to you "strunkandwhiteium," which is the element of style.

The possibilities are endless, which may in fact be the problem. While the humanities crowd is dithering over names, the business majors would swoop in and next thing you know we'd be living with "Citibank's Element 113" and "Sony's Element 115." Eventually, all the elements would be bought up by Google.

And that's when things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Let's leave the naming to the scientists after all. At least it'll keep them busy instead of destroying the universe.

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