Literary musings on a News Item from a Lab: New, superheavy element to enter periodic table


When Thomas Gray wrote in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

he was certainly not thinking of scientists working in sequestered laboratories, away from the frenzy of the terrors and threats, the cruelties and crises that characterize the world of politics and religions, and much of the news about war-mongering and missile launching. But there are, thank heavens, people whose interests and attention are drawn to music and poetry, to telescopes and microscopes and accelerators. Now and again we read about their accomplishments, not all of which may be accessible to the average citizen of the world.

One of those breakthroughs recently announced is the concoction of yet another super-heavy element in a laboratory: one with the atomic number 112. That confirms the list of human-generated elements to almost twenty beyond what nature can bear: Uranium-92.

As elements grow heavier they become unstable, losing weight, as it were, by spitting out (radioactively) intolerable excesses as alpha and beta particles. So every trans-Uranic element vanishes in due course, reducing itself to a lighter element in the natural world. Now some physicists have reported (from the Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Arheiligen in Germany) that by interbreeding (metaphorically speaking) zinc and lead nuclei they have managed to create this new overweight element with a respectable period of stability: this Pantagruel will soon acquire a technical-sounding name. Except that Rabelais’ Pantagruel was the progeny of the giant Gargantua, whereas here the parents zinc and lead are perfectly normal: only the progeny is gigantesque. A more apt literary reference would be Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow where  Sir Hercules and Filomena (two dwarfs) gave birth to Ferdinando, a giant by comparison, for that’s how this super-hveavy element was concocted.

Modifying Rabelais one might say*:

Readers, friends, if this news you read,

You’ll find daily news hollow indeed.

There’s nothing here that’s outrageous,

Nothing sick, or bad or contagious

Physicists are ecstatic about this event

Creating another super-heavy element.

We wish our media, instead of making unhappy noises

Reports on matters about which one rejoices.

* Rabelais Begins his work with this note to his readers (Trans. Thomas Urquhart & Peter Motteux):

Good friends, my Readers, who peruse this Book,
Be not offended, whilst on it you look:
Denude yourselves of all depraved affection,
For it contains no badness, nor infection:
‘Tis true that it brings forth to you no birth
Of any value, but in point of mirth;
Thinking therefore how sorrow might your mind
Consume, I could no apter subject find;
One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;
Because to laugh is proper to the man.

June 11, 2009

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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