Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Element of the Month: Lawrencium!

August's Element of the Month:

Atomic Mass: probably somewhere around 262 amu, but it's hard to get enough of it on the scale for a really good reading
Melting Point: Nobody knows
Boiling Point: Nobody knows

Lawrencium, like June Element of the Month Einsteinium, is a fakey element. Except, Lawrencium is even more fakey than Einsteinium, in that the latter was at least created by humans accidentally, as a surprise bi-product of the great and heroic effort to create a weapon that could incinerate a city and all its inhabitants in a single go. With Lawrencium, by contrast, people actually sat down and decided to see if they could force a new form of matter -- an atom with 103 protons in its nucleus -- into being. And they could! Humans are kind of amazing.

Lawrencium is definitely an element in terms of having a discrete atomic number and a concomitant square on that big chart in the science classroom. It is definitively not an element in the sense of being a basic building block of the world around us. It doesn't occur naturally, after all, and it doesn't even occur unnaturally all that often. You could in fact easily slip all of the Lawrencium that's ever been made into your wallet, although that wouldn't be a good idea for several reasons. But it's a moot point anyway, because almost all of the Lawrencium that's ever been made isn't Lawrencium anymore. Even in its most stable form, half of a given pile of Lawrencium will radioactively decay into something else (generally Nobelium, if you must know) in roughly the time it would take you to watch Avatar.

The Centerfold!

The four lead researchers who are generally given the credit for
Lawrencium gaze proudly at a molecule of their new creation sitting
on team member Albert Ghiorso's index finger.
Lawrencium is a key ingredient in the first fakey compound that I have ever heard of. Scientists working in the Soviet Union -- a 20th Century political entity that has since disbanded into Estonia, Lithuania, and thirteen other countries -- created some Lawrencium and then very quickly, before it disappeared on them, sprayed it with some chlorine. The result was a few molecules of the improbable-sounding LrCl3, lawrencium trichloride.  Judging from the name, it seems like it would be a great household cleaning agent. I have however been unable to determine in my research if this is actually the case, and in any event even if it was I can think of several potentially tricky issues that would be involved in its manufacture, marketing, and use.

Despite the simultaneous research that the Soviets were conducting, Lawrencium is generally considered to have been -- what, "discovered"? "created"? "invented"? "designed"? "cooked up"? -- at the University of California in the early 1960s. Indeed, we will see the University of California mentioned a lot as we explore the fakey elements, for this institution was at one time one of the great centers of human knowledge and achievement, before legendary California Governor Ronald Reagan got his paws on it. "Cal," as it is affectionately known, is of course a member of the "Pac-12," a college football conference that was created by taking a naturally occuring conference, the Pac-10, and adding two additional protons. I would be remiss in not reminding you that the college football season opens on Thursday.


Elaine said...

My favorite part is the Super Nerd (far right) in the photo. OMG...he could be related to my hubby (cough cough.)

Great write-up!

Morgan said...

When we went on our tour of Cal, they mentioned their extremely prestigious Chemistry department. "There's a Californium," they said. "There's a Berkelium," they said. "But is there a Stanfordium? Nooooooo! We win!"

Michael5000 said...

..and Lawrencium is named after the Cal Chemistry lab, actually. They've got three elements! Stanford zero. That's what's called "losing the Big Game."

UnwiseOwl said...

Go Ducks?
We're allowed to support them again, right?
I, for one, am hoping for the return of the Michael5000 superlative local football coverage.