Perhaps the first popular-science exploration of the weird world of huge, unstable, laboratory-generated elements.
In his debut, British journalist and broadcaster Chapman first explains that elements from one (hydrogen) to 92 (uranium) exist in nature. Transuranium elements (greater than 92) are produced in nuclear explosions, nuclear reactors, or nuclear accelerators. All are unstable—i.e., radioactive—so they gradually break down, and the heavier they are, the quicker they disappear. This is no problem for plutonium, element 94, which is only mildly radioactive, and Chapman describes the huge industry that generates tons for use in bombs and nuclear power. Just beyond plutonium (Americium, Curium, Berkelium, Californium…), they can be produced in visible quantities and are found in X-ray spectrometers and smoke detectors. Those after Einsteinium (element 99) exist in microscopic amounts and have no commercial use, but they continue to fascinate groups of researchers, including one formerly led by Chapman’s hero, Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg (1912-1999), who discovered 10. Based in California, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, these groups compete fiercely to generate heavier elements, often in minuscule quantities, study their properties, and quarrel over who was first. The book’s title refers to elements after 103, which are increasingly hard to produce in vanishingly small quantities but hold out the possibility of an “island of stability,” a massive atom that reverses the trend toward increasingly fleeting existence. “The superheavy elements—elements from 104 and beyond—might last for seconds, but that’s what makes them so cool,” he writes. “When an atom of a superheavy element is created, it is probably the only atom of that element in existence in the universe.” Chapman has done his homework, traveled the world to interview a colorful fraternity of scientists, and delivered an entertaining account of their struggles to create elements that have never existed and that may or may not reveal spectacular new features. A fine pop-science account of elements that “are rewriting the laws of atomic structure.”