Physicists have found order in the complex world of minuscule particles through the theory of quantum mechanics. But team of researchers at Florida State University has found that surprisingly, the last 21 elements in the periodic table don’t like to follow those rules.
For the past three years, Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt and his team of researchers have been performing experiments on berkelium, element number 97— and the results diverged from what might be expected. Instead of obeying quantum mechanics, they found that the element’s behavior was better described by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which is usually applied to objects in the macro-world.
When compounds are made, electrons typically line up so that they all face the same direction. This wasn’t the case when it came to electrons arranging themselves around atoms of berkelium.
“It’s almost like being in an alternate universe because you’re seeing chemistry you simply don’t see in everyday elements,” said Albrecht-Schmitt in a press release.
The team determined that what they were seeing could be explained by the Theory of Relativity, which states that objects with mass get heavier the faster that they move. The nucleus of a heavy atom like berkelium is highly charged, and as a result the associated electrons start to move very quickly. This makes them heavy, and that leads to the diversion from their expected behavior.
Albrecht-Schmitt was given 13 milligrams of berkelium, a radioactive element, by the Department of Energy to facilitate this research. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s around 1,000 times more than has ever been used in a research project.
Berkelium was discovered relatively recently, in 1949. As such, there hasn’t been a great deal of research into the element — up until a few years ago, it was thought that it wasn’t even possible to make it into a compound.
Studies like this one demonstrate just how much we don’t know. An element being discovered and placed on the periodic table is only the first step of a longer process. It takes a great deal of work, from that point onward, for scientists to understand the intricacies of a newly discovered building block of our world.