It’s the Island of Stability! No, it’s not the rare and elusive island nation where there are never any problems. Though if such an island does exist, please let me know of its location and immigration rules immediately. Seriously, I’ll be there in less than a day. No this island is a bit more metaphorical, as well as a bit like those man-made islands out in Dubai. The Island of Stability is a theory of physics, chemistry and quantum mechanics. That sounds like a very complicated island, but to find this scientific paradise the answers can be found in a relatively simple way. We will get to that simple way shortly, but first a bit about why my paradise island has yet to be found or made.
Lets start out with what this Island of Stability really is. As most of us know, anything past lead (Pb) on the periodic table is unstable. This has a lot to do with quantum mechanics, the nature of fundamental particles, and how many protons and neutrons that can be crammed into one place before they get fed up with one another and leave. For elements like bismuth (Bi) up to uranium (U) the half-life, or time it takes for one unit of a pure sample to decay into half of the quantity, is fairly high, so they appear to be stable. Though they do occasionally eject neutrons or alpha particles. But beyond that, for what are known as transuranic elements, the stability and the half-life of the elements are severely shortened. Fermium (Fm) for example has a half-life of somewhere between 100 days to 25 hours, depending on the isotope. There is a theory that states that there is a set of super heavy elements that would have to be man made, but would be stable. This is a bit hard to believe given what I have just said about anything beyond Uranium being unstable, but there is also an element that is well below lead on the periodic table that is unstable and is not found in nature. This is due to the same phenomena that cause the transuranic elements to be unstable. Technetium is the only element below lead that is not naturally occurring, but has been successfully synthesized and is used in medical procedures. Due to these rules of physics and quantum mechanics that I do not yet fully understand the idea of finding the Island of Stability amiss the Sea Of Instability is very valid.
See, scientists can be whimsical too!
So how do we find these elusive super heavy yet stable elements? The exact same way we go about finding the elements that make up the Sea of Instability, and the same way we have found the Higgs-boson. By slamming together atoms at nearly the speed of light. That’s right, all of the high minded science and discovery that goes on at Fermi Lab, and CERN has all the elegance of slamming two bricks together. Well, it is a bit more difficult than that of course, the bricks are atomic, often only a few atoms, and doing so at speeds the approach the speed of light. Make no mistake, this is an incredible feat, one that makes how far we have come in the world of science, and as a race. This is done using incredible amounts of power, miles upon miles of superconducting high powered magnets, and the most sophisticated machinery and instruments that have ever been made.
So what will these super heavy, yet stable, elements bring us? Better weapons, or faster cell phones, maybe even cheaper energy? No, there is no planned end game for this, just like there is no reason to find the Higgs, other than to find it. The pursuit of knowledge and intelligence, science of the sake of science. As I understand it, Fermi Lab will be closing soon, because with CERN in place the US government no longer sees the need for it. This is saddening to me, we need more colliders, more science of the simple pursuit of science.