Field of Science

Elements of revenge

I seriously can’t write fiction. I suspect it's not lack of imagination, but some odd form of writer’s block. Or perhaps it is too many years devoted to sifting defensible reality from experimental and computational data. Or is it that I’m unwilling to ask a reader to be confused about the real, the possibly real and the entirely imagined? Or maybe it is because the one and only piece of published fiction I wrote, came (almost) true within the year?  Would any other fiction I wrote become real? That’s clearly a flight of fancy, but even with one data point, do I want to take the risk?

I was invited to write a commentary on the elements that scientists thought they'd discovered (but hadn't) for Nature Chemistry's issue celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table.  The IUPAC guideline for element names says that you can't re-use names already in circulation in the literature, even if they were ultimately discarded. Which got me thinking if that could be a way for an unscrupulous scientist to crush the dreams of a competitor of having an element named for them. Despite my demonstrated inability to write good fiction, I drafted an introduction to the essay that played out this idea.

In the end, I wrote a non-fictional introduction to the essay (which you can read here if you are of the mind to do so). But if I were to write a piece of fiction about the elements, it might begin like this:

Prof. Exuvgen leaned back in her desk chair and wondered for the thousandth time why she’d ever signed that retirement agreement. Time was slipping through her fingers.  In a month, she’d have to hand over the key codes and walk out the door.  No access to her data and worse yet, no access to the tools she would need to analyze it, that idiot of a director had made it clear her account would be wiped — wiped — at midnight on the 30th, and anything left in her office trucked out to the dumpster.  Tang Woh Kow, they maintained, was right. There were 243 elements in the universe and no more. When Tam Besper saw the traces of zuzenium in 2069, right in this building, that was the end of the era of the element hunters. The last chance to have your name remembered in every chemistry book in the solar system, if not the galaxy. Though if the Vulcans had their way, everyone would be using the systematic names.

Running her hands through her short grey hair, she turned again to the data on the screen.  She’d spent thirty years working toward puncturing Kow's ceiling on the elements, the last ten racing Sabaxoar’s extravagantly funded group on the moon. What was it Maxine had said at that last meeting? Oh, right. Time. That she wasn't in a hurry, she had years to work on this, given lunar life expectancies. And with that Maxine shook her blonde curls and floated off.  Would the director take her more seriously if she looked less weary, grey and face it, old?

Time. It's running out, was there enough to say, now, without a doubt, that they’d turned up an atom or two of 244 Sym in that last run? Maybe, though maybe that oxide of muscovium was rearing its ugly head, this wouldn't be the first umbral element sunk by 115. Certainly there was strong evidence of a new isotope of 243.  Time, there just wasn't enough time.

She tapped the bud in her ear, and started composing the manuscript of one last paper.  “We present here evidence for the creation of the 616 isotope of 243 Zz, half-life 82 msecs, along with traces of element 244, Uuq.” She glanced up at the list of proposed names for 244 her group had kept on the whiteboard, derived from the names of birthplaces and long dead mentors and far-flung galaxies and grinned wickedly. “…for which we propose the name sabaxorium, symbol Sx, in honor of our respected and long time competitor in this hunt, Maxine Sabaxoar.”

Four months later, Maxine wakes up to a tweetstorm of congratulations for having the first trans-zuzenium element named for her. She pulls up the paper and seeing the unmistakable traces of MvO in the accompanying supplementary data dump, shrieks, "I've been robbed.”
In the 1970s, Tang Wah Kow of New Method College in Hong Kong suggested (based on an odd theory about triads and octaves) that the upper level for an element was Z=243. Further, he proposed that when that element was ultimately discovered, it should be called zuzenium (Zz). The suggested name he said was, "...deduced from a Chinese idiom 'The name stands behind Zun Zen, who (Zun Zen) came last on the list of successful candidates in a royal examination." [In "An Octagonal Prismatic Periodic Table" J. Chem. Ed. 49, 59 (1972)]

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Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS