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Science

Finding shows science isn't just about the money

TOKYO -- The creation of a new chemical element by a Japanese group demonstrates that scientific research holds value beyond commercial applications.

     After years of toil, the team at government-affiliated research institute Riken has pulled off the Nobel-worthy feat of confirming the existence of element 113. Japan can now leave its mark on chemistry's periodic table, breaking the hold of the U.S., the former Soviet Union and other countries on new elements. The team's success brings to fruition a long string of efforts by scientists developing Riken's particle accelerator program, starting with Yoshio Nishina -- the father of Japanese nuclear physics.

     Riken's current accelerator costs around 500,000 yen ($4,111) a day to run for power alone. Research using the device has recently been targeted for elimination, since it is not expected to yield any direct economic benefit. The experiments leading to the discovery of element 113 were set to end just two months after the element was synthesized for the third time. That milestone provided sufficient evidence to win the Japanese team credit.

     Japan briefly appeared in the periodic table early in the 20th century. Masataka Ogawa, who later became president of what is now Tohoku University, and others announced in 1908 the discovery of element 43. They called it nipponium. It was later learned that Ogawa had actually found a different element, and the name was abandoned. Element 113 thus marks a particular triumph for the nation's scientific community.

     In Japan, research with no obvious application is treated as a very low priority. The confirmed synthesis of element 113 should challenge this status quo, pushing policymakers and others to take a broader perspective on the value of scientific progress.

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