Element 112 Gets a “Planetary” Namesake


Our solar system, living proof of the Copernican model

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

Astronomers might think they have it tough waiting for the ultimate validation of discoveries: an official name.

For example, it took the International Astronomical Union four years to go from the discovery of a new dwarf planet in 2004 to the name Haumea in 2008. And names for a series of new features spotted on Mercury took from January to April to materialize.

Well, when it comes to apparent dawdling, the IAU ain’t got nothin’ on the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Scientists at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Germany first created element 112 in a particle accelerator by firing zinc ions into a lead target in February 1996.

Now, 14 years later, IUPAC has officially recognized element 112—now the heaviest known element on the periodic table—as copernicium. And thank goodness, cuz more than a decade of calling it by its placeholder name ununbium must have been tripping up many a chemistry student’s tongue.

To be fair, making copernicium was not an easy task to reproduce. The version made by the German lab lasted for less than a second. The most stable version of the element, copernicium-285, hangs around for only a few minutes before it decays into darmstadtium-281.

Copernicium, abbreviated Cn, joins the list of relatively heavy elements named after prominent scientists, from curium (Cm, 96) and einsteinium (Es, 99) to bohrium (Bh, 107) and meitnerium (Mt, 109).

You’ll see that most of the names bestowed on elements are those of notable physicists. In picking an astronomer as a chemical namesake, GSI team leader Sigurd Hofmann said in an IUPAC statement that he and his colleagues wanted to “salute an influential scientist who didn’t receive any accolades in his own lifetime, and highlight the link between astronomy and the field of nuclear chemistry.”

I’m on board with that, as Nicolaus Copernicus is most famous for setting up the scientific framework that proves Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. This was a pretty radical proposal for the mid-1500s, and one Copernicus didn’t see published until he was on death’s door.

Since then, IUPAC states on its Web site, “the planetary system introduced by Copernicus has been applied to other analogous systems in which objects move under the influence of a force directed towards a common centre. Notably, on a microscopic scale this is the Bohr model of the atom with its nucleus and orbiting electrons.”

I also find it fitting that the name should come about during today’s frequent collisions between particle physics and astronomy. Particle accelerators in particular have gone from churning out new elements to breaking those elements apart in efforts to solve mysteries of the universe.

So congrats, Copernicus, on a well-deserved [if long in coming] nod from the chemical and physical communities.

Human Journey