Friday, August 15, 2014

Element of the Month: Hassium!

August's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 269ish amu
Melting Point: Who knows?  But maybe it's a solid at room temperature?
Boiling Point: "Boiling" kind of loses it's meaning at a certain level of elemental fakiness.

The name "Hassium" seems like it would belong to some respectable, conservative silvery metal somewhere in the middle of the periodic table. But no. Hassium is Element 108, and like all three-digit elements it is extremely fakey. We're high enough up the fakiness ladder, in fact, that even its most basic characteristics -- shininess, metal-ness, melting point, whether the the cyclopentadienyl rings of a hassocene compound would or would not be in an eclipsed conformation -- are all strictly conjectural. There's never been enough of the stuff around to get a good look at it, and with half-lives ranging from microseconds to seconds depending on the isotope, it doesn't exactly invite leisurely study. Well, Hassium-277 might have a half-life of 11 minutes under certain circumstances. But that's conjectural too.

Bizarrely, physicists have spent a fair amount of energy studying whether there might be naturally occurring Hassium. These guys clearly haven't been reading Element of the Month, because they don't understand "half-life" very well. Let's do the math again! No, really, let's!

The world has, at a rough-and-ready level of approximation, something like 1.33 x 1050 atoms. Let's say that at the moment of creation, or whatever, all of those atoms were all super-durable 11-minute Hassium-277 atoms. (You would want to stand well back while conducting this experiment.) After 11 minutes, half of it would be gone, and you'd have but 6.65 x 1049 atoms, n'est ce pas? The minutes wear on, and by the end of an hour, the Earth is only 2% Hassium. THAT'S STILL A LOT OF HASSIUM! But the trend is definitely downward.

I have applied the most powerful tool in the human arsenal to this question -- I mean of course a spreadsheet -- and find that if the whole world started as conjectural extra long-lasting Hassium, we would be down to a single atom in about thirty and a half hours. This makes the prospect of finding naturally occurring terrestrial Hassium more than a little silly -- and I'm looking at you all, A. Marinov, S. Gelberg, D. Kolb, R. Brandt, and A. Pape. If there ever was natural Hassium on Earth, it was gone long before the Battle of Hastings.

[sidebar: if instead of an 11 minute half-life, we plug in the median half-life of the Hassium isotopes, .4 seconds, our planet of Hassium is down to a single atom in a minute and seven seconds.  Again, stand well back if you try this experiment.]

The Centerfold!

Hassium is too fleeting, and made in too small of batches, to be photographable.
So instead, here is, if I'm not mistaken, some fan art from the surprisingly
robust online "My Little Pony" community.  This Little Pony's name is
"Hoodies and (Not Heartstrings) or Hassium," and it was designed by
one "Parclytaxel" in 2013.

Let's get back to that name, which might be the most interesting thing about Hassium for a layperson such as yourself. It was much argued about during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, as was the question of who produced the stuff first. There were seven or eight fakey Elements in the same situation, and it was considered a Big Deal not only because it was the kind of decision that could literally affect tenure, but also because the name could imply that credit for the scientific achievement belonged to the liberal democracies of the west, or to the Soviets and their communist allies.

When the mess got sorted out -- in 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union -- the implied win went to the (West) German team working at the Institute for Heavy Ion Research, or as they like to call it locally, the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung. That's in the town of Darmstadt, which is now famous as the birthplace of Element 110, Darmstadtium. Hassium, though, is named for Hesse, the Bundesland in which Darmstadt is located. It is much like how Berkelium and Californium both got their names back when the University of California Golden Bears were the team to beat in fakey Element synthesis.

And that's what I have to say about Hassium. Don't confuse it with Hafnium. That would be bad.

There seems to be a real dearth of Hassium-themed art.  Infinite Art Tournament will entertain requests for funding of up to US$20 to be used in the production of an original piece of Hassium-themed or -inspired art, an image of which would appear on this post and on possible future posts of this blog.  Send proposals with subject line "Hassium Art" to infinitearttournament /at/

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