National / Science & Health

‘Nihonium’ name chosen to thank Japanese public for support

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

A day after “nihonium” was announced as the name of atomic element 113, the physicist who led the discovery team said Thursday the name was chosen to thank Japanese people for their support.

Nihonium (Nh) came to fruition thanks to a long-term project funded by taxpayers, said Kosuke Morita, the Kyushu University professor who led the team at state-backed Riken science research institute. Riken started the project to discover element 113 in September 2003.

“What we are working on is fundamental research, meaning the discovery of a new element will not immediately help produce new medicines or create unprecedented materials,” Morita said at a news conference at the Riken research center in Wako, Saitama Prefecture.

“Our research rarely grabs the attention of people,” he said. By using a name coined from the Japanese word for Japan, “We wanted to show that our research is supported by the Japanese people,” he added.

Morita said “japonium” was another candidate, but the team decided to go with a name coined from their native language.

Although the discovery will not immediately improve people’s lives, Morita said the fact that the team even managed to find a new element holds great meaning for Japan, whose reputation in science was damaged significantly by the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011.

“Students study the periodic table when they go to junior high school. … If they find an element that was discovered by a Japanese research group, I believe that would make them more interested in science,” Morita said. “We believe the significance of securing a spot (in the table) is immeasurable.”

The discovery was the first of its kind in Japan as well as Asia. The Riken team won the naming rights to the element in December after vying with a joint team from the U.S. and Russia that claimed to have discovered it first.

The name will become official after going through five months of public review by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The union also revealed on the same day the names of three other new elements: moscovium (Mc), named after Moscow, for element 115, tennessine (Ts), after Tennessee, for element 117, and oganesson (Og) for element 118. It is common to name a new element after the place where it was discovered.

Nihonium is a superheavy, synthetically made element with a half-life of less than a thousandth of a second — making it difficult to discover or put into practical use. Morita’s team created Nh three times, in 2004, 2005 and 2012, to secure the naming rights.