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We should care about the discovery of new elements: they help us see the universe with awe

On December 30, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced that four new elements are being added to the periodic table. The group had "reviewed the relevant literature for elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 and has determined that the claims for discovery of these elements have been fulfilled".

Kosuke Morita of Riken Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science points out the new elements added to the periodic ...
Kosuke Morita of Riken Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science points out the new elements added to the periodic table of the elements during a press conference. Photo: AP

Television networks cut into their regular programming with the announcement. There was dancing in the streets. Facebook and Twitter erupted with pledges to name newborns after the physicists responsible for the discoveries.

OK, nothing in that last paragraph happened. You didn't jump around your living room for joy, and, to tell you the truth, neither did I. In a flood of information demanding our attention, the news of the approval of new elements barely caused a ripple.

And that's too bad. Like most vitally important scientific discoveries these days, this one will never get the publicity it deserves.

When I was growing up, all the kids wanted to know what brilliant invention those scientists would come up with next. We read stories about aircraft designed to set altitude records and physicists building bigger and more powerful atom smashers.

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Over the years, alas, something terrible has happened to science - more precisely, to our excitement about science. We love our gadgets and devices. We can be passionate about the latest app. And despite our constant criticism of the pharmaceutical companies, we demand faster approval for the new medicines that emerge from their research arms.

But basic science - science for its own sake - has largely lost its lustre. Apart from paleontologists and creationists, nobody much cares whether those fossils that keep turning up in China really belonged to a dinosaur with pennaceous feathers. The discovery of the most distant known galaxy this past spring didn't produce a sudden wave of excitement and awe as we looked up at the sky and contemplated our place in the cosmos. What thrills us nowadays isn't growth in the body of human knowledge, but innovations that apply that knowledge in our day-to-day lives.

There's nothing wrong with focusing on the day-to-day. We have a lot to worry about: the economy, terrorism, climate change, gun violence - the list goes on and on. We have to take our small pleasures where we can find them.

But it's important, too, to seek sources of awe. Some will look to God. Some will look to examples of human kindness. But as the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin noted in his final book, one source to which we can all look, whatever our religious or political persuasions, is the majesty of the universe itself.

When I was a kid, our shared delight in scientific accomplishment had nothing to do with any practical application of the technology. We didn't read about the latest discoveries to help us get into the right college. Our fascination was evoked by the simple fact that such things could be done. We didn't sit on the edge of our seats with excitement each time astronauts went up because we were hoping one day to find uses for Teflon or Tang; what thrilled us was the reminder of the potential scope of human knowledge and achievement.

That's what should make the four new elements so exciting. They help us to look at the universe with awe. Their discovery completes the seventh row of the periodic table. Okay, so we don't think about the periodic table too often. Maybe we remember it as a bizarrely coloured wall chart we had to memorise at school, or as a set of columns and rows whose mysteries we briefly unlocked to pass undergraduate chemistry, or even as the cleverly deployed inspiration for the opening credits in Breaking Bad.

What thrills us nowadays isn’t growth in the body of human knowledge, but innovations that apply that knowledge in our day-to-day lives.

But the periodic table is more than that. It's a near-perfect index to the various properties of the elements, and in that sense a window into creation. When the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev organised his early version in the 1860s, he was ridiculed by his fellow scientists for believing such a chart could predict the properties of elements yet undiscovered. But he was right.

And the periodic table continues to predict. The newly approved elements fit in exactly as they're supposed to. That's exciting. They are "highly unstable superheavy metals that exist for only a fraction of a second". That's exciting too. In the next instant, as a physicist quoted on the IUPAC website puts it, "they decay into hitherto unknown isotopes of slightly lighter elements that also need to be unequivocally identified". Meaning there's more excitement to come.

Not thrilled yet? Here's a way to make it fun. Consider the working names of the new elements: ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium. All of them sound like the stuff the Resources Development Administration was mining in Avatar. Permanent names are still to come. If you have an idea, IUPAC is taking suggestions. So is Twitter.

In the meantime, let's be thankful for knowledge for knowledge's sake. I have no idea what, if anything, the new elements will be useful for. But it's exciting that they're there.

Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.

Bloomberg

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