What Value is Something That Exists For a Few Milliseconds?
Scientists are getting closer to confirming the creation of a new element, number 115, currently called Ununpentium. That roughly means 115 in Latin and Greek. From a pure science point of view, this is great news. In an applied sense, there is a bit of a problem. This new element, should it be confirmed, has a half-life of only a hundred and seventy-three milliseconds. It decays so fast to lighter elements (lighter meaning less protons in the nucleus) that its existence is only proven by energy signatures it leaves behind in a particle accelerator.
To avoid a lot of technical terms I am not qualified to use, I will drop a simple explanation to how this creative process works. Protons are added to existing atoms at incredible velocity. Presumably, the protons stick and a new element is born. Very useful and powerful elements, such a plutonium, were created in this manner. As the search for new elements has continued, it seems the majority of these manufactured elements are very unstable, presumably due to heavy proton loads.
So again, what is the value of spending huge amounts of money and energy to “create” something that could arguably be said to not really exist if its only trace is in a computer detection system. Well, let us go back to plutonium. Its creation has had one of the most dramatic effects of anything in our modern world. Warfare, diplomacy, and economies were all drastically affected. When you go from one conventional bomb in World War Two with about 4,000 pounds of explosives to one atomic bomb being equivalent in power to 20,000 tons of TNT, that is a real game changer. And when your opponents start making them, everybody starts dancing a new dance when diplomatic overtures are made. Plus, you have to keep making more than your opponent and make them stronger, so your economy changes.
Of course, this isn’t just about making a bigger bomb than the “other guy”. What we learned when creating the first atomic bombs led to a better understanding of matter and energy. We have made electricity generating nuclear reactors that provide immense amounts of energy from a relatively small amount of fuel. A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil. Additionally, nuclear fuel reactors themselves are closed systems and emit zero greenhouse gasses, unlike fossil fuels. In the United States alone, 20 percent of our energy needs are met by the roughly 100 reactors currently operating.
Beyond that, nuclear material is being used for medical advances, especially in the area of cancer treatment. I have a relative who recently was diagnosed with small cell cancer in one of their lungs. Even ten years ago that would probably have been a death sentence. As it is, after about eight months of treatment that included radiation therapy, the doctor currently says that they have an 85 percent chance of being cancer free.
So, on the surface, creating new elements that only exist in about a tenth of a blink of an eye may seem trivial if not outright wasteful. Scientists themselves assert any practical implications of this newly generated element are next to improbable. But they also believe further production of new elements may lead to a stable “super heavy” atom with valuable uses. If the history of scientific discovery as opposed to practical application is any indicator, we are probably just scratching the surface of the benefits of this atomic research.