So, in the Previous story, we observed the way elements were discovered, and ended up on this question.
Why is the interval in the number of protons in successive elements in the Periodic Table ALWAYS 1?
Why is the Periodic Table the way it is? - PART I
Chaotic Discoveries to Assembled Organization.
This story is about looking deeper into this question, about why things are the way they are.
Well, it does seem that Elements had such a uniform arrangement, once we discovered all of them. Discoveries started out randomly, and then finally, everything assembled into order.
All Elements were not ‘Discovered’
The major reason we asked about the uniformity of the Periodic table was the assumption that things were discovered on their own, by chance, in a natural order.
However, if we look for elements that were really discovered, i.e., that appear naturally, we would see that out of the total 118 elements, only 92 elements are synthesized artificially.
This means that gaps, or irregularities, did exist in the periodic table, before these elements were synthesized. For example, when Technetium (atomic number 43) became the first synthetically created element, it filled the mysterious gap between the elements Molybdenum and Ruthenium.
It should be noted that some elements were first created artificially, and then found in nature, in trace amounts; and many are still created artificially due to the small amounts they are found in.
The Cosmic Relation
Before we answer our initial question, we need to look into how the elements came into being.
The Big Bang Nucleosynthesis
Elements, that make up things around us, came from free protons and neutrons, or from lighter elements. During the Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, with sufficiently low temperatures, protons and neutrons combined together to form light elements — Hydrogen, Helium (and isotopes), Lithium and trace amounts of Beryllium. The proportion in which they combined determined what they formed.
In stars (like the Sun), nuclear fusion converts Hydrogen to Helium. In more massive stars, the reaction continues to form elements up to carbon and oxygen, and sometimes up to Iron. Elements heavier than this are created during supernovae, in nuclear capture reactions.
Left overs are what we have
Debris from stars that die out forms new stars, because of which the elements created by the dead star are present in the new stars. Our Sun, a second generation star, also contains heavier elements which it cannot have produced itself, which it is supposed to have got from its parent. The left over material from the Sun’s Creation, formed the Earth (and the solar system). And this is what we find on earth as different naturally occurring elements! Infact, even the carbon that makes our body and the oxygen we breathe are the ashes of dead stars!
The reason we find many elements with uniformity in the difference of their atomic number is maybe — since lighter elements were themselves involved in the fusion that created heavier elements, there has been a significant chance that when elements formed, they had a uniform difference in the number of Protons they had — and that has created the uniformity we see in the Periodic Table.
I would be talking about this in detail in the next stories…
What’s the Limit?
So, is 118 the limit? Why don’t we just synthesize new elements now?
The problem with heavier elements is that they are unstable, and easily undergo nuclear fission. This makes it increasingly difficult to synthesize heavy elements.
Its the Strong Force!
Have you ever thought, how Protons, that are positively charged, held together in the nucleus, even though like charges repel. The reason is — The Strong Force. The strong force cancels out the repulsive electrostatic force and binds these protons.
The problem with the Strong Force
However, the problem is — the strong force acts over close ranges only, 1–3 femtometers. As the size of the nucleus increases (as in heavier particles), the Protons get further apart from each other, and the action of the strong force reduces, and the repulsive electrostatic force starts acting.
As a result, the Nucleus tends to undergo fission, and after losing protons, decays into some lighter element. This suggests that even heavier elements might also have been created naturally, but they must have instantaneously decayed and so we don’t find them on their own.
Even then, researchers have been working on the yet next element — Element 119 — Ununennium. However, several trials have already been failed, due to the problems discussed above. Scientists have tried to synthesize Element 120 as well — though no success yet.
Even though the conclusion might seem vague, we can hardly provide an exact reason for why things naturally are the way they are. In fact, it’s probably the uniformity that the universe inherently has which makes us be in a position to question this uniformity.
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