Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table by Kit Chapman
In Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table (2019), Kit Chapman goes on a scientific, chronological, and geographical tour of the mysterious upper reaches of the Periodic Table, taking his readers back in time to the beginning of nuclear physics/chemistry as well as from the United States to Russia to Germany and Japan and introducing his audience to the scientists who discovered (or not — there were more than few disputes) the “trans-uranium” elements beyond uranium’s atomic number 92. It’s both an engaging and informative read.
After covering the early discoveries necessary for further exploration of superheavy elements (fission, fusion, the makeup of the atom, etc.), Chapman moves into the increasingly difficult job of discovering, or creating, the upper elements. Most of the early heavy lifting was done by the lab in Berkeley, which had formed the perfect mix of high level equipment and high quality scientists and engineers, led by Nobel winner Glen Seaborg, who was involved in discovering ten new elements and was the first living scientist (and one of only two) honored by having an element name after him.
Those early elements were relatively easy to find — samples were large (in chemical terms), they stuck around for minutes, and detectors didn’t have to be all that sensitive. But as the explorers moved farther upward, all that changed. New technology had to be devised, samples were microscopic (to the nano degree) and they stuck around for seconds and then far, far less than a second. After Berkeley’s early success, other teams began to get into the game and even take the lead, particularly the Russians led for many years by Yuri Oganessian, the second person to have an element named after them. Teams in Sweden, Germany, and Japan also leapt into the race, and Chapman does a great job through interviews and research of conveying the competition, sometimes heated, sometimes petty, often tied to geopolitics (the Cold War) between the teams as he covers the push forward, innovations, embarrassments over mistaken claims, disputes over who was first (and the accompanying naming rights), and even outright fraud (once).
The interviews in particular are engaging, as are the many personal stories, such as the time one pair of scientists, raising the half-life clock on a sample, zoomed past a gate guard threatening to shoot if they didn’t stop. There are also several surprisingly moving moments, as Chapman never loses track of the personal in pursuit of the science. He also does an excellent job of highlighting the contributions of female scientists, such as Lise Meitner or Darleane Hoffman, who have too often been overlooked — passed over for a deserved Nobel Prize or, thanks to sexism, missing out on being credited for several element discoveries.
Superheavy is always informative, often entertaining, sometimes moving, and, as scientists edge nearer to discovering elements that due to their incredibly short existence serve no “useful” purpose, filled with the kind of wonder for wonder’s sake that is the best of science.