Science Corner: All Signs Point to Nihonium

simeon jesus photo

Presentation of the Lord; mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere
(Photo by Lawrence OP )

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.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    resonate47 commented on December 7, 2016 Reply

    Great post Andy. I’m excited about the new elements (though now we’ve all got to get rid of those out of date t-shirts of the periodic table). I’m also excited about Advent. I’m trying to really focus on what it signifies this year. Winter is my least favorite of the seasons and I’m prone to grumpiness and gloom around this time of year (the Grinch comes to mind). But instead of succumbing to my usual routine and focusing so hard on the coming of springtime, I’m trying to concentrate on Advent and the taste of that joy we get at the coming of Christ.

    When I was younger, I remember that I always favored Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. I didn’t know why at the time, but as the years went by, I believe I started to make sense of it. Christmas Eve is the day full of anticipation, the culmination of all the excitement put into the holiday. Christmas Day, though beautiful, starts to turn sad for me near the evening because I know that it’s ending. I think that Christmas Eve really touches on what we experience as Christians in this life; it’s the anticipation of fulfillment, it’s the awaiting of Christ. It’s all that joy of what’s ahead. And that’s when I feel closest to the Kingdom.

    For now, and especially in this day and age, I hope that Advent and the Christmas spirit encourages us all to be kinder to one another and to bless each other. That’s a taste of the Kingdom as well 🙂

    Peace of Christ,


      Andy Walsh commented on December 13, 2016 Reply


      Thanks! I’m glad to hear that Advent is helping bring joy to a gloomy winter for you.

      I liked your observations about Christmas Eve. I tend to have a different take on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day from yours, but then again since I’ve been married Christmas has almost always involved travel and celebrations lasting a week or more after Christmas. So the end of the day on the 25th hasn’t meant the end of Christmas for in quite a while. But this year I’ll try to keep your perspective on Christmas Eve in mind and make the most of that joy of anticipation. -Andy

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