Solving a superheavy mystery
In September 2017 I responded to a call for proposals sent out by Jon Turney, a science writer I knew by glowing reputation if not in person.
He was commissioning a book of essays exploring scientific collaborations for the Royal Society, and I thought maybe I had a candidate. While working on my book Cracking the Elements, I had read much about the cut-throat desire to be first in discovering elements, and the controversies surrounding priority.
Collaborative exceptions to this rule were few. But one mystery in particular stuck out – and it had to do with the discovery of superheavy elements. These particles, with atomic numbers greater than 104, decay milliseconds after they are made, and require equipment and materials only available in a few labs in the world.
The scientific players rose amid the secrecy and urgency of the Second World War atomic programs, laying the foundation of a highly competitive field. In the late sixties, seventies and eighties, US and Russian teams fought to create and claim elements 104 to 106. A German team at GSI Darmstadt had discovered elements 107, 108 and 109 and were looking for more.
Yet at a conference in 1989, two giants of nuclear physics met: Georgy Flerov of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Russia, who had led the Soviet atomic bomb project, and a key competitor, Ken Hulet from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, US. Despite the prevailing political scene – including the fact that both countries were still testing nuclear weapons – the two scientists agreed to collaborate.
The first visit of US personnel to the lab at JINR took place in 1990. By 1998 the partnership yielded discovery of the super-heavy elements 114 and 116, and a new era in scientific collaboration between Russia, America, Germany and Japan.
So why did collaboration eventually prevail over competition? Was it because of necessity – the availability of rare materials required for experiments, for example? Or did the spirit of glasnost somehow come into play as the Cold War came to an end? Who brokered the meeting between Flerov and Hulet, or did they do it themselves? Did they have a common language? Was there something about their leadership styles or personalities that meant they overcame institutional and political barriers?
Ken Hulet died in 2010 after a long career, but witnesses to the process were still very much alive. Indeed, through the work of people including Yuri Oganessian who succeeded Georgy Flerov at JINR, and colleagues of Hulet’s, elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 (named after Oganessian) have now been added to the last row of the periodic table, so the collaboration is going strong.
Happily, Jon was able to commission the essay. Via the wonderful Kit Chapman, who was in the process of finishing his book Superheavy, I gained an introduction to Mark Stoyer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who proved a very generous interviewee. I also made contact with JINR in Russia and found myself with an invitation to go to visit them.
After some frantic organising of visas and flights – the trip was to take place during the World Cup in Moscow – I was on the plane to try to put my questions to one of the key players in the whole drama, Yuri Oganessian.