Scientists set sail for the elusive island of stability

Nancy ShuteOn March 6, 1869, Dmitrii Mendeleev’s periodic table was unveiled, and we’ve launched a yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of his iconic work. In this issue, we’re looking ahead to imagine the periodic table of the future, as scientists strive to create bizarre new elements. And we also set ourselves a science visualization challenge: charting the half-lives of all the unstable elements on a single page.

In the 20th century, physicists realized that they could create new elements by bombarding or smashing together existing elements. So far, more than two dozen new elements have been created, with atomic numbers ranging up to 118.

Our resident physics Ph.D./journalist Emily Conover leads us on an armchair tour of laboratories in Russia, Japan and the United States, where scientists are testing the limits of physics and chemistry to discover new elements, with the goal of finding the heaviest element ever.

These elements decay rapidly, making them devilishly hard to study. For this issue, freelance writer and Ph.D. in chemistry Carmen Drahl, assistant deputy news editor Emily DeMarco and design director Erin Otwell decided that the only way to show the mind-bendingly wide range of life spans among unstable elements was to use a logarithmic scale. The result plots the half-lives of the longest-lived forms and provides familiar comparisons. Do you know which isotope’s half-life nearly matches the run of ancient Rome?

One of the great things about editing a science magazine is that I learn something new every day. This time around I learned about the island of stability, a realm that scientists have not yet explored. This predicted zone is thought to contain isotopes of superheavy elements that would exist for minutes or even a day — making them much easier to study than something like oganesson, which hangs around for less than a millisecond.

Stay tuned for more on the periodic table and the future of physics and chemistry at and here in the pages of the magazine. We hope you’ll enjoy this exploration as much as we do.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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