Stories About Chemistry
42. On the Brink of the Unknown
When it will happen nobody knows. But it certainly will. Man will score a great victory over nature, perhaps the greatest in all history.
He will learn to control radioactivity. He will be able to make the unstable elements stable, and vice versa, he will be able to make the most stable nuclei decay.
This hypothesis has not yet been taken up even by science fiction writers. And scientists also still shrug their shoulders in bewilderment: so far they can see no practical or theoretical ways of harnessing radioactive phenomena.
But we are confident that some day such ways will be found, though they may be as unfathomable to us as an atomic power station would be to a pithecanthrope, to use the apt expression of the author of a science fiction book.
Now let us suppose our wish has come true. The synthesis of super-heavy elements is no longer a problem. The scientist has at his disposal dozens of new inhabitants of the Big House. The chemists get down to studying them in an all-out drive. And come face to face with the unexpected.
On second thought, “unexpected” is hardly the right word, because we already now know what to expect.
Can we predict the properties of, say, the element with the atomic number 126, mentioned above? We can, and with no great difficulty.
Generally speaking, we could continue the Periodic System mentally as far as we liked. The general physical principle of its structure is quite clear. A master-mind once demonstrated a table to one of the present authors, which contained a thousand elements. When asked, “Why a thousand and not two or ten thousand?,” the “inventor” replied in embarrassment: “You see, the sheet was not large enough…”
But that was just another oddity. As to the hundred and twenty-sixth element, it can be said quite seriously and definitely that it will belong to a new family of elements, a very singular family, the like of which chemists have never seen.
The family will begin with element No.121. And all its eighteen members will resemble one another much more, incomparably more than our old friends, the lanthanides. These strange inhabitants of the Big House will hardly differ from one another any more than the isotopes of one and the same element.
The reason is that the three outer atomic shells of all the elements of the family will be exactly the same; only the fourth-last shell will be filled gradually in the series. Could any perceptible difference in chemical properties be expected in such a case?
One of the stories of this book is entitled “Fourteen Twins.” Now if we tried to describe the properties of the supposed family, we would have to do some hard thinking to find a title for it. Perhaps we might call it “The Eighteen Identical Elements” or “Eighteen Elements, and All as One.” The word “twins” is “no go” in this case.
But since this book is not science fiction, we shall defer concrete descriptions for better times.