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Copernicium: Discovery, Name & Properties

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

There's a whole list of elements that were created in a lab, and copernicium is on that list. While it often confusing to keep each of these man-made elements separate, copernicium has its own unique story. This lesson will explore its name, discovery and then look at a few of its properties.

Name Origin

How did you get your name? Perhaps you were named after your father? Or possibly you got your name in honor of your mother's beloved sister. Throughout history there have been a lot of notable namesakes: from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy Jr., our society enjoys naming our children after other famous or important individuals in our life.

Now, elements on the periodic table aren't children, but they still require a name. Some names, like carbon, come from a Latin root word (in carbon's case, the word is 'carbo' which means 'coal'). Others, like moscovium, are named after places (you guessed it, moscovium gets its name from the Russian city, 'Moscow'). And in some cases, scientists take the route seen by parents, and name their new discovery after one of their favorite people.

So I bring you…. copernicium, (abbreviated Cn), which is an artificially produced, radioactive element with 112 protons in its nucleus that was named after Nicolaus Copernicus, a European scientist who lived from 1473-1543. While Nicolaus Copernicus isn't a favorite uncle, he was a pretty big deal.

The element copernicium was named after the scientist, Copernicus
copernicus

Copernicus worked as an astronomer, a mathematician and was revered as a religious figure. He contributed a ton to the scientific world, but he is probably best known for suggesting the planets revolve around the sun (called heliocentrism). At the time, people believed everything revolved around the earth and to suggest otherwise stirred up everyone. For example, the Roman Catholic Church banned much of his work.

But not to worry Copernicus! Hundreds of years later, scientists appreciate you enough to name an element after you. In fact, copernicium was officially named after the famous scientist on February 19th, 2010, which was Copernicus' 537th birthday. That's quite the honor. In fact, if you need some birthday gift ideas for that hard to shop for friend or relative, consider discovering and naming an element after him or her.

Discovery

Now that you know that copernicium is the namesake of a famous scientist, let's check out how it was discovered. You may recall that is artificially produced, which means that it cannot be found in nature and was made in a lab.

Back in 1996, scientists in Germany took some zinc-70 and shot it at lead-208. You may be wondering what the numbers after the zinc and the lead mean. Those numbers represent the mass of the element, which can vary depending upon how many neutrons are in the nucleus. Don't worry too much about that detail, just know that there are different forms, or isotopes, of elements.

After shooting the lead with the zinc (which, fun fact, traveled at 30,000 kilometers per second) for two weeks, the scientists produced one atom of copernicum-277, which decayed (or broke down) almost immediately. Only producing one atom that immediately broke down after two weeks worth of work doesn't sound that amazing, but anytime scientists create a new element, it is quite the accomplishment!

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