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How many elements are there in the Periodic Table? Wrong.

2011 June 7
by Paul Vallely

Here’s one for your next pub quiz. Q: How many chemical elements are there in the periodic table? A: 118. Wrong. Two more have just been isolated, to the delight and/or horror of the world’s chemistry teachers.

The thing about these base elements is that only 94 of them occur naturally on the Earth. The others are produced synthetically. The two new ones, just announced by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, arrive and decay in only a few minutes. Flerovium and moscovium, as they have been provisionally named – but the IUPAP is open to suggestions if you have better ideas – start their brief existence when curium atoms are bombarded with calcium nuclei. The resulting new elements last a few milliseconds before passing into a different element and then decaying into a third.

Confused? If so spare some sympathy for the periodic tables in school laboratories up and down the land which are now officially out of date. And it could be worse. You could – like Cambridge University, the BBC and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – have just bought a £4,750 (VAT not included) oak coffee table with the out-dated table set into its top.

Still, think of it as work of art from a previous era, rather like Tom Lehrer’s setting of the Periodic Table to the classic G&S patter-tune, The Model of a Modern Major-General. It ends:  “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discarvard.” Today’s students may prefer a gag that is more up-to-date: “Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table, because the only element he recognises is that of surprise”. Keep up, will you.


2 Responses
  1. Mr White permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Your article suggests that Flevorium and Moscovium would become the 119th and 120th elements discovered, when in reality they occupy positions 114 and 116 within the periodic table.

  2. monica permalink
    August 27, 2013

    I agree with Mr White. The article suggests that with flerovium and livermorium there would be 120 elements. This is incorrect. It’s important to understand that elements with atomic numbers 113 – 118 have been reported but not fully authenticated. This is the bottom right of the periodic table: ununtrium 113, flerovium 114, ununpentium 115, livermorium 116, ununseptium 117, ununoctium 118.

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