The announcement that a quartet of new elements has been added to the venerable periodic table has stirred interest in the highly competitive quest to extend it. Ivan Semeniuk delves into chemistry’s iconic road map
What’s an element?
For the ancient Greeks, there were four of them – earth, air, fire and water. That idea turned out to be far too simple to explain the diversity of matter we encounter in everyday life. But the basic premise that matter is composed of a finite list of key ingredients is sound.
Today, we know that much of the matter that we’re made of is in the form of different types of atoms. The periodic table is a list of those atoms, one for each square, in order of increasing mass.
No. 1 on the list is hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe. Its nucleus is composed of one positively charged particle known as a proton that’s orbited by one negatively charged electron.
An element’s position on the table is simply the number of protons it contains. Adding more protons to a nucleus makes it a new element with new chemical properties. A third kind of particle, the neutron, has no charge, but its presence is what keeps elements that are heavier than hydrogen stable.
How nature makes elements
Because like charges repel, all protons contained within an atom’s nucleus are constantly pushing each other apart. Atoms don’t disintegrate because there is a stronger force – literally called the “strong force” – that can hold protons together at short range.
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