National Geographic : 2013 May
115 ast October 22, at 9:29 a.m., a bell rang in the main office of Yuri Oganessian’s lab in Dubna, north of Mos- cow. In a cramped warren partitioned by bookshelves and whiteboards, 12 nuclear physicists sat at desks stacked high with papers or strewn with snacks. Across the hall, a rebuilt but venerable cyclotron was flinging calcium atoms against a bit of foil at 67 million miles an hour. The chime of the little bell signaled that one of those collisions had worked: A new atom was born. At that moment it was the only atom of element 117 on Earth, and only the 19th ever to exist. The others had also been made in this lab, and all had quickly vanished. After a fraction of a second, this one was gone too. Dubna, which sits on the Volga River, was carved out of a forest as a new city of science after World War II. Georgy Flerov, who had helped launch the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons research, founded the laboratory that Oganessian later took over. Early in the war Flerov had noticed that the flow of articles about radioactive elements from American and German scientists had suddenly stopped. He suspected they were building atomic bombs, and he wrote to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in April 1942. Stalin charged Russian physicists with building a bomb too. For his part Flerov was rewarded with a car, a dacha, and, most significant, the lab in Dubna. There he focused on the hunt for new elements. Everything you know and love on Earth, and everything you don’t, is built of elements—the different types of atoms. They’re billions of years old, most of them, scattered into space by the big bang or exploding stars, then incorporated into the newborn Earth, then endlessly recycled as they moved from rock to bacteria, president, or squirrel. In the late 1800s another Russian, Dmitry Mendeleyev, tried to make sense of them all, grouping them by mass and other attributes in his periodic table. Later scientists traced Mendeleyev’s order to the structure of atoms. Each ele- ment got a number: the number of protons in its atomic nucleus. By 1940, researchers had discovered everything that is durable and an- cient on this Earth, right up to uranium, element 92. They’d filled in every gap Mendeleyev had left. But they weren’t finished. Beyond uranium lies a world of possibilities—elements too radioactive and unstable to have survived billions of years. To explore that world, you have to create it first. The first steps of creation changed more than just the periodic table. In 1941, after Glenn Seaborg and his colleagues at the University of Cali- fornia, Berkeley produced element 94, plutonium, Seaborg was promptly recruited to the Manhattan Project—Flerov was right. After helping to engineer the plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, end- ing the war, Seaborg returned to Berkeley. He continued to make new elements, with less dramatic ap- plications—smoke detectors, for instance—or none at all. By 1955 By Rob Dunn Photographs by Max Aguilera-Hellweg l 119 THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.