Humanity has already outdone Nature and created 26 elements heavier than what the universe itself produces — uranium, element No. 92 — the undisputed heavyweight prior to physicists trying their hands at the very art of creation. It's No. 92 since that's the number of protons in each atom of the radioactive material, whether it's the uranium found here on Earth or at the furthest corner of the most far-flung galaxy.
Adding those sub-atomic particles, one by one, and building up the nucleus of atoms — from the lightest, hydrogen, with just one, all the way up to the heaviest — is what makes every element what it is essentially. This element-building process takes place in the cores of stars throughout their lifetimes, with the atomic number of protons being the all-important distinguishing feature of every substance in existence.
The characteristics of iron, for example, the very identity of iron, is a function of it having 26 protons within the nucleus of its atoms — and not 25, that would be manganese, nor 27, that's cobalt. Nature's ability to keep packing on the protons stops when 92 of them have been squeezed together, requiring the greatest energy to create — each atom ready to go off like a bomb, and quite literally.
Mankind has never been dissuaded from treading where only demigods dare intrude though, and not satisfied with only 92 kinds of basic materials in the universe, has astonishingly expanded the catalogue to 118. Or, it's 119, depending on how fast one is willing to count and name.
At this writing, researchers are certain enough of their ability to fuse the still undiscovered element No. 119 in such little time from now that the most debate concerning the matter is whether to name it ununennium or eka-francium. The question then quickly becomes, is there no end to this artificial piling of greater and greater mass upon the fundamental building-blocks of the cosmos?
Scientists long ago achieved the remarkable skill to surpass the natural limits of atom-building, leaving a surprisingly long history of success in cooking up elements in the laboratory heavier than uranium — the catalogue of artificial handiwork known as the transuranian elements. The first triumph was in 1940 when two Americans at UC-Berkeley synthesized neptunium, element No. 93.
The world has progressed in leaps and bounds in the 80 years since that first accomplishment, however, constructing mammoth linear particle accelerators — atom-smashers — such as Fermilab in Illinois or CERN's Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, the largest particle accelerator (17 miles) on the planet.
With tools such as these, science is battering open doors in physics that hadn't been known to exist before. Nonetheless, as with absolute zero which can't be reached, or the speed of light, which may not be attained, there is a limit, too, as to how far even humankind can trespass in this realm of creation by our own hand.
And that's why no name should ever be necessary for element No. 137 because Nature will have put her foot down making it impossible to bring it into being — and yet this element which can't exist has already been named: feynmanium. It was Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who pointed out some very straightforward mathematics having to do with electron orbiting shells demands that in any fanciful element No. 137 the electrons in the inner shell of the atom nearest the nucleus would have to be moving at velocities exceeding the speed of light. And so here is a definite and inviolable stop sign.
Yet when physicists have smashed, reformed and forced into existence ununennium or eka-francium or whatever it turns out to be called, there'll still be 17 more slots to fill, going up to the element No. 136, flirting with the unachievable feynmanium. It isn't wise to bet against Homo sapiens in failing to attain those superhuman heights.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. Read David Nabhan's Reports — More Here.
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