Expanding our understanding of the Universe
Remember the Periodic Table of Elements? You know…the poster that hung on the wall of your chemistry class in high school and was covered with symbols like “H,” “Xe” and “Au”?
In case you don’t remember, the Periodic Table is a listing of all the elements known to man, and those elements make up everything in the universe around us. Cars, stars, pickles and skyscrapers are all made up, in varying proportions, of the 118 elements found in the Periodic Table.
Stars, like the Sun, are made up mostly of hydrogen (H). Hydrogen is the simplest, lightest and most plentiful of the elements. Pretty much all of the hydrogen in the universe was created in the aftermath of the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago.
Now, when I say that stars are “mostly” made of hydrogen, that’s because stars are actually making other elements all the time. You see, a star is really just a huge mass of hydrogen that collapses in on itself due to the massive amount of gravity of all the hydrogen. At the very center of this mass, the pressure and the heat are so intense that hydrogen atoms are fused together to make helium (He) atoms.
Those atoms are then fused together to make the other, relatively light elements that we see all over the universe—things like lithium (Li) and beryllium (Be), for example. This process is what is known as nuclear fusion, and the excess radiation it creates is the reason that stars shine.
Heavier elements are also created via this process, albeit in much smaller quantities, up to and including iron. Iron is the last element that stars create as a part of their natural life cycle. Once a star begins making iron, the iron settles in the core and it becomes more and more difficult for the star to create new elements through the fusion process. So, where do elements heavier than iron—like gold (Au)—actually come from?
Well, if a star is massive enough, it will eventually burn through all of its original hydrogen fuel and explode in what’s called a supernova. This insanely violent event is where stars form the heavier elements and cast them out in to the universe. Those elements are then swept up over millennia to form the non-stellar objects that we find out in the wider universe, like planets. Closer to home, those elements become rocks, cats, trees, and people. Yes, we are all literally made of star stuff.
But, if you remember your Periodic Table at all, you might remember that beyond the elements that are cooked in stars or supernovae, there are actually some elements that were man-made, in the laboratory. How is that even possible?
Initially, some of these elements were created simply by slamming neutrons into uranium (U) atoms. If you shoot enough neutrons into a uranium atom, it will actually turn one or more of those neutrons into a proton, and ta-da, you’ve got a new element. (Remember, elements are distinguished from one another mainly by the number of protons in their nucleus. The more protons, the “heavier” the element.)
But, even that stops working after a while. So, to create even heavier elements, you have to fire atoms into each other. Do that, and occasionally, the protons will bind together and you get a new element.
That is, in fact, what an international group did a few years back, creating four new elements, with 113, 115, 117 and 118 protons in them. Recently, those new elements each had a final name assigned to them, marking their permanent addition to the Periodic Table of Elements.
Element 113 is now called nihonium (Nh), element 115 is called moscovium (Mc) and element 118 is called oganesson (Og). Best of all, because part of the team that created these was based in Nashville and Oak Ridge, element 117 is now called tennessine (Ts)!
So, as long as kids study chemistry, they’ll also learn about Tennessee and the great scientific research that is done here in our state.
Steven Disbrow is a computer programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development, an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.