Stories About Chemistry
2. A Hymn to Modern Alchemists
The ill-starred alchemists of the Middle Ages were tortured as ordained by the Spanish Inquisition and were burned at the stake. Today’s “nuclear”‘ alchemists are quoted with deference and awarded Nobel Prizes.
The former believed in too much and knew not what they did. Their “theory” consisted of invocations, prayers, and blind faith in the magic properties of the mysterious philosopher’s stone. The latter believe neither in God nor in the Devil. They believe in the power of the human mind and in the boundless ingenuity of human hands. They recognize strict and sound physical theories consisting of a great deal of physics, a great deal of mathematics, and still more bold assumptions and hypotheses.
The alchemists of our day are trying to break through into the domain of the very heavy elements. But will this not liken them to builders of castles in the air? We have just said that the lifetimes radioactivity assigned to elements with atomic numbers close to 110 were more than rigorous. This is so, and yet not quite so. The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr once spoke of the good of “crazy” ideas. In his opinion only they are capable of revolutionizing current conceptions of the universe.
The creators of the super-heavy elements also have such ideas. Only we daresay these ideas are not much “crazier”‘ than, say, those of the theory of relativity. They are thoroughly thought out, have a sound physical footing and have been checked by careful calculation.
The essence of these ideas is that there must be what one might call “stability islands” in the domain of highly charged nuclei. This does not mean that the elements on them are not subject to radioactive decay, but just that they live longer than their neighbours, long enough not only to be synthesized, but to enable investigation of their chief properties. One of these “islands” is the element with the atomic number 126. So far all this is theory, and it is up to practice to prepare the hundred and twenty sixth.
The conventional methods of nuclear chemistry are obviously powerless. Neither neutrons, deuterons, alpha-particles, nor even the ions of the light elements - argon, neon, and oxygen - are of any use for this purpose, because there is no suitable target element. All the available elements are too far removed from the atomic number 126. And so extraordinary methods must be invented. An original method now under discussion is that of bombarding uranium with uranium, of accelerating uranium ions with a special accelerator and hurling them at a uranium target.
What would be the result? The two uranium nuclei would merge into one monstrously complex nucleus. Uranium carries a charge of 92. Therefore the gigantic nucleus would have a charge of 184. It would not only be unable to exist, but would even have no right to. And so it would instantly break into two fragments with different masses and different charges. And it is quite probable that one of these would be a nucleus with a charge of 126…
Such is the idea. It would be a mistake not to believe that it will be realized sooner or later. For such is life…