In his element

A few friends sent me excited word this week that a new element had been named for Copernicus -- and perfectly timed for the release of my book about him. Only, I had already reported this news in the new book. The  designation of super-heavy atomic element number 112 as "copernicium" (symbol Cn) occurred nearly a year ago, on February 19, the date of Copernicus's birthday (his 537th), as announced then by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The recent news concerns the acceptance of the name copernicium by a sister organization, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which voted in favor during its General Assembly in London this past week.

Nice to know that everyone agrees.

Copernicium is a radioactive element that does not exist in nature. A few atoms' worth were created in 1996 from a fusion of zinc and lead under laboratory conditions at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung) in Darmstadt, Germany. The tiny sample of new substance decayed into extinction within microseconds of its synthesis. Yet its significance lives on. Chemists and physicists the world over have since reviewed the experiment and authenticated its results.

According to custom, the scientists who produced the copernicium earned the right to suggest a name for it. The team's leader, Sigurd Hoffman, drew a nice comparison between Copernicus's world view (of planets orbiting the Sun) with the structure of a copernicium atom, in which 122 electrons orbit a nucleus of 122 protons and 155 neutrons.