There are now 118 named elements on the periodic table. The latest additions made big news last week. Elements 113, 115, 116 and 117 are now named nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson respectively. The actual event triggering the headlines wasn’t what you’d traditionally picture as science however. It wasn’t the actual discovery or synthesis of these elements; that happened years ago. It wasn’t even the selection of the names which was announced back in June. It was simply the completion of the bureaucratic naming review and approval process, the final dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s to make everything official.
While standardization and governing bodies don’t evoke Science the way test tubes or particle accelerators do, they still contribute significantly. While the passive voice is generally preferred for scientific publications, humans are responsible for science. Where there are humans, there will be communication, coordination and committees. Communicating and coordinating tend to be viewed positively, but committees can get a bad rap. Here, they represent something very valuable to science: consensus. Unexpected observations, theoretical breakthroughs and technological milestones get a lot of press, but they are often the beginning of the story. The value of science also lies in the repeatability of results and the power of accumulated evidence to persuade enough skeptics to achieve that consensus.
Science is also notable for the predictions it makes. The real excitement of new elements is not in learning their properties or picking a name for them. The best part is the way that the periodic table tells us exactly where to find new elements and what properties to expect from them. That the periodic table organizes the elements we already knew so thoroughly and comprehensively is remarkable by itself; the way it charts the unknown world of chemistry is doubly so. The discovery of nihonium, moscovium and the others was long awaited, their arrival prefigured by the creation of the table nearly 150 years ago. By giving them names, the committee is certifying those predictions have been fulfilled.
The wait for tennessine is over, but we have entered Advent, another time of anticipation. As we await the celebration of Christmas, we experience a small taste of what the prophets and priests went through expecting the arrival of the Messiah foretold by scripture. I’m reminded especially of Simeon and Anna, patiently but actively preparing themselves to meet him. They were privileged to celebrate his official naming ceremony; the name Jesus had been chosen months before but making it official was still an occasion worth marking. And their blessing of that baby signaled the fulfillment of prophecy about their own lives and about his role in all of our lives.