Science continues to be a discipline which I love to learn about yet have no interest in doing, if that makes any sense. I studied mathematics in undergrad because I love that you can do it with a pencil and paper (or even, sometimes, in your head). Science, especially experimental parts of science, in contrast feels so … well … messy. And nothing is messier than smashing radioactive atoms together in the hopes of discovering new atomic elements! So Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table felt like a comfortable way to experience all that drama from my armchair, or couch, or bed, as necessary.
Kit Chapman delivers a thoroughly researched and fun look at the history and current state of superheavy nuclear physics. Basically, most of the first ninety-two elements on the periodic table occur in nature in some way, shape, form, and duration (though some only so briefly or remotely that we actually first encountered them through lab synthesis). As atomic physics heated up (pun intended) in the first decades of the twentieth century, work on the atomic bomb led physicists to synthesize neptunium and plutonium, and from there, the race was on to see which labs around the world might discover more and more elements. These elements are “superheavy” because they have so many protons and neutrons in their nuclei—making most of them remarkably unstable and short-lived by human measures of time. As the twentieth century elapsed, four labs in four different countries have at various times competed and collaborated to synthesize and claim the discovery of new elements. As of this review, we have discovered up to element 118, now named oganesson, after one of the primary drivers of this epic quest.
And epic indeed it is. Though Chapman at times frames the search for superheavies as a race between nations or labs, he is also careful to delimit this endeavour as a collaborative, cooperative one. Indeed, one of my favourite things about Superheavy is the way it truly puts paid to the “Great Man” theory of science. Of course individual titans, such as Al Ghiorso, Glenn Seaborg, Darleanne Hoffman, Yuri Oganessian, etc., loom large over this history—how could they not? Yet it is exactly the fact that there is such an extensive list—and indeed, I had to curate those names from a much longer “where are they now” list in the book’s epilogue—that proves my point. Even those people by themselves could not have accomplished what they did without the tireless work of lab assistants and technicians, students, engineers, etc. The discovery of superheavy elements is an example of the necessity of collaboration in science.
I loved how I was able to make connections between this book and my previous knowledge of atomic physics and the history of classifying elements. I love talking to my students, even though I don’t teach chemistry, about Mendeleev and the modern periodic table. Chapman discusses the table’s genesis briefly, but this book, of course, is more concerned with the breaking of that table. Although the current slate of superheavy elements has nicely rounded out the seventh period of the table, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the next elements to be discovered will bring in terms of chemical properties. Chapman discusses attempts to reformulate and reconceptualize the periodic table. This is a powerful reminder that devices like the periodic table are not set in stone; they are not received wisdom that describe objective truth about our universe. Rather, they are human technologies designed to be of use. When they are no longer as useful, whether because our priorities have changed or our knowledge has grown, we should replace or upgrade them.
I appreciate the confidence, too, that Chapman has in his readers. This is a book that assumes a fair amount of scientific understanding for a layperson—Chapman does not do a ton of background exposition before he describes the inner workings of some of these experiments. I say this not to put anyone off reading Superheavy but rather as a kind of endorsement of its spare style: there are no equations here. Much like Hawking’s quips regarding the sparsity of equations in A Brief History of Time, it seems that Chapman understands that his readers would rather see elision over verbosity—and I am inclined to agree. This is not a long book, yet it feels dense enough as is, entirely a result of Chapman’s assiduous research and rich storytelling.
This is a perfect book for science lovers, particularly chemistry and physics heads who want to know more about how we look for and discover new elements. I also want to give Chapman a shout-out for mentioning Desert Bus for Hope in this book! He compares looking at readouts of collision experiments to being as boring, if not more boring, than playing Desert Bus, and then he goes on to mention Desert Bus for Hope in a footnote. I was reading this the week after Desert Bus for Hope 2023 ended—what serendipity. I love nerds.