Nihonium 50mm Lucite Cube
Nihonium 50mm Lucite Cube
Making new elements was easy at first. Plutonium, found only in the merest traces in nature, was comparatively easy to make by playing around with big atoms smashing into other big atoms. Anomalously oversized atoms were created at the flick of a switch in a lab or just as well in the hellish soup following a bomb that goes Ka-BOOM. The American-led teams that worked on the Manhattan Project generated a massive amount of data on radioactivity and soon ever bigger atoms were being put together. By the early 60's scientists had already figured out how to make elements with triple digit numbers.
But nature has its limits. Every atom's neutrons and protons would normally fly apart from each other like misaligned magnets but are instead bound together by the brutal grip of the Strong Nuclear Force. The glue strength of the SNF however is constant whereas each new subatomic particle joined at the nucleus adds its measure of repulsive counter-force.
The tipping point does not happen with uranium, with its 92 proton count, as popularly believed, but much earlier with bismuth which has only 81 protons. That element is just on the edge of stability and has now been shown to be very slightly radioactive. That is, given enough time, any quantity of bismuth will decay into other, simpler atoms over time. In this case effectively an eternity: tens of billions of years. Uranium decays at a speedier 4.5 billion years, plutonium at an eye-wink of just 24,000 years and so on shorter and shorter half-lives with each new atom with a higher number of protons.
By the time we reach elements in the triple digits the strong nuclear force is able to hold that clown car down but for mere seconds before disassembling in a shower of particles and energy.
In the new millenium two teams were racing each other at coaxing together a record 115 protons long enough to verify that for a fleeting instant the event could be confirmed to have occurred at all. In August 2003, the team from the Russian city-sized laboratory named Dubna claimed to have accomplished the feat and, in the process, recorded they found traces of element 113 as well when No. 115 decayed.
A couple of weeks later another team from Japan announced that they had also concocted #113. Scientists then reviewed their steps and found the Japanese team's work sounder and decided they were deserving of the crown.
The Japanese team proudly named their creation after their homeland. Nobody's really sure where the name "Japan" comes from and despite the rest of the world referring to it this way the Japanese themselves call their country Nippon or Nihon and it is this root that gives the new element its name.