Thursday, July 23, 2009

A superheavy new element is named "copernicium"

Source: Website of GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, Darmstadt

Element 112 in the periodic table is named in honor of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits the Sun ("heliocentric theory"), thus paving the way for our modern view of the world.

The discovering team of scientists at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung (Center for Heavy Ion Research) in Darmstadt, Germany, led by Professor Sigurd Hofmann (photo) suggested the name „copernicium“ with the element symbol “Cp” for the new element 112. A few weeks ago, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC, officially confirmed the discovery. In around six months, IUPAC will officially endorse the new element's name. This period is set to allow the scientific community to discuss the suggested name "copernicium" before it is finally accepted by IUPAC.

Copernicus was born 1473 in Torun and died 1543 in Frombork, Poland. His discovery that the planets circle the Sun refuted the then accepted belief that the Earth was the center of the universe (or the "geocentric theory"). This finding was pivotal for the discovery of the gravitational force, which is responsible for the motion of the planets. It also led to the conclusion that the stars are incredibly far away and the universe inconceivably large, as the size and position of the stars does not change even though the Earth is moving. Furthermore, the new world view inspired by Copernicus had an impact on the human self-concept in theology and philosophy: humankind could no longer be seen as the center of the world.

With its planets revolving around the Sun on different orbits, the solar system is also a model for other physical systems. The structure of an atom is like a microcosm: its electrons orbit the atomic nucleus like the planets orbit the Sun. Exactly 112 electrons circle the atomic nucleus in an atom of the new element “copernicium”.

Element 112 is the heaviest element in the periodic table, 277 times heavier than hydrogen. It is produced by a nuclear fusion, when bombarding zinc ions onto a lead target. As the element already decays after a split second, its existence can only be proved with the help of extremely fast and sensitive analysis methods. Twenty-one scientists from Germany, Finland, Russia and Slovakia have been involved in the experiments at GSI that led to the discovery of element 112.

Since 1981, GSI accelerator experiments have yielded the discovery of six chemical elements, which carry the atomic numbers 107 to 112. The discovering teams at GSI already named five of them: element 107 is called bohrium, element 108 hassium, element 109 meitnerium, element 110 darmstadtium, and element 111 is named roentgenium.

The goal of the scientific research conducted at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt (founded in 1969) is to understand the structure and behavior of the world that surrounds us. In addition to broadening our understanding of the world, this knowledge also serves as a basis for technological progress in all areas of our lives.

GSI operates a large, in many aspects worldwide unique accelerator facility for heavy-ion beams. Researchers from around the world use the facility for experiments that help point the way to new and fascinating discoveries in basic research. In addition, the scientists use their findings to continually develop new and impressive applications.

The research program at GSI covers a broad range of activities extending from nuclear and atomic physics to plasma and materials research to biophysics and cancer therapy. Probably the best-known results are the discovery of six new chemical elements and the development of a new type of tumor therapy using ion beams.

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