Leading article: Elements of surprise

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Here's one for your next pub quiz. Q: How many chemical elements are there in the periodic table? A: 118. Wrong. Two more have just been isolated, to the delight, or horror, of the world's chemistry teachers.

The thing about these base elements is that only 94 of them occur naturally on the Earth. The others are produced synthetically. The two new ones, just announced by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, arrive and decay in only a few minutes. Flerovium and moscovium, as they have been provisionally named, start their brief existence when curium atoms are bombarded with calcium nuclei. The resulting new elements last a few milliseconds before passing into a different element and then decaying into a third.

What this means is that periodic tables in laboratories up and down the land are now out of date. But it could be worse. Consider those who have just bought a £4,750 oak coffee table with the old periodic table set into its top.

Still, they should think of it as a work of art from a previous era, rather like Tom Lehrer's setting of the periodic table to the classic Gilbert and Sullivan tune, the "Major-General's Song", which ends: "These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others, but they haven't been discarvard". He was right about that.

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