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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

Investigation Pokes Holes in the Periodic Table

By Martin Bridge

periodic table with missing elements

In a stunning series of revelations that spread through the periodic table like a wildfire through Colorado, several chemical elements have been withdrawn as evidence mounts that the experiments reporting their discovery had been faked.

It started last spring with elements 118 and 116, whose "discovery" in 1998 at Berkeley had been reported in Physical Review Letters. But when other labs could not reproduce the results, internal investigation revealed that the lead author on the paper might have manufactured the evidence, and the paper was withdrawn, taking the two elements with it. Subsequently, it was alleged that the same person had faked earlier experiments reporting the discovery of elements 110 and 112 at the GSI laboratory in Germany.

That was just the beginning. For years the Particle Data Group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory has been keeping close tabs on the properties of elementary particles, but stimulated by these events they turned their attention to the chemical elements. In a report issued last week, they conclude that there is no basis for believing in seven of the trans-uranic elements, which have atomic numbers beyond 92, and fully 18 of the so-called naturally occurring elements probably don't exist either.

"It's amazing that these results haven't been questioned over all this time," said a spokesperson for the group who declined to be identified. "Physicists, and chemists too, are such trusting souls that fraud can be committed right under their noses and they'll never notice it."

Particularly hard hit have been the rare earth elements. "They don't fit very well into the periodic table anyway," said the anonymous spokesperson. "Nobody will really miss them." He added that it should have been a clue when two elements were given closely related names. "Things like holmium (Ho) and hafnium (Hf). Or yttrium (Y) and ytterbium (Yb). What are the odds of two such crazy names arising independently? The second was just a 'copycat' discovery by someone trying to cash in on the glory. When you look at the data, they're all faked, but no one thought to investigate before. Yb or not Yb? That is the question. And now we have the answer."

Even some well-known elements are threatened with extinction. Potentially the most serious is silicon, only recently thought to be the most abundant of all the elements on Earth. "Imagine what this will do to the semiconductor industry when they find out that they named their valley after a fictional element. Silicon comes from silly con, which just means ridiculous fraud."

But if silicon and the other elements don't exist, what is the true composition of all the materials thought to contain them? The Berkeley group believes it knows. "Most likely they're all different forms of carbon," the spokesperson said. "Everybody has heard about buckyballs and nanotubes. Carbon can be made to take on an entire array of different forms. A lot of what we thought of as different elements are probably just more and more intricate forms of carbon. And carbon is one element that we're sure exists. at least that's what they told me this morning."

©2002 by Martin Bridge. Reprinted with permission.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette