TOKYO -- For nearly 150 years, scientists have been vying to discover new elements as they endeavor to unravel the mysteries of the universe.
Now the confirmed discovery of element 113 by a Japanese research institution demonstrates the country's basic research strengths in a field long dominated by the U.S., Russia (or the former Soviet Union) and Germany.
The news that a Japanese research team had received official credit for discovering a new element came on Dec. 31, surprising many in the country. Two international organizations, which are comprised of scientists from around the globe, certified the discovery of element 113 by a team led by Kosuke Morita at Riken, a government-affiliated research institute.
Morita, a professor of physics at Kyushu University, and his fellow scientists made the discovery after nine years of experiments.
The scientific community generally allows those who make a discovery to name it. The new element is widely expected to be named either "japonium" or "nipponium." In a year or so, the element will be added to the periodic table in chemistry textbooks.
Atomic numbers are determined according to the number of protons in the nucleus, such as atomic No. 1 for hydrogen, No. 6 for carbon and No. 26 for iron. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev proposed the concept of a periodic table in 1869. He assigned atomic numbers to each element based on a law of periodic behavioral change in chemical properties.
When released, Mendeleev's periodic table had a number of vacant slots. This pointed to the existence of undiscovered elements. Initially, many scientists were skeptical. But other elements, such as gallium and germanium, were later discovered, as had been predicted. Those discoveries helped prove the correctness of Mendeleev's periodic table.
Elements up to uranium, No. 92 on the periodic table and a source of nuclear energy, do occur in nature, but elements past uranium must be synthesized from existing elements in an accelerator called a cyclotron. Using the cyclotron, atomic nuclei of zinc were accelerated into those of bismuth.
The device is designed to generate an enormous amount of energy by accelerating electrons and protons nearly to light speed. The cyclotron was first developed in 1931 and has since been used to support the development of basic research. Dr. Yoshio Nishina, a researcher at Riken, and other scientists created Japan's first cyclotron in 1937.
Super-heavy elements, those elements past No. 104, are not only hard to create but also very difficult to detect. Indeed, element 113 disappears into thin air in one-500th of a second. "The discovery has proven that Riken is at the top of the world in terms of the performance of its accelerator and detector as well as experimental accuracy, among other criteria," said Akito Arima, a Riken president during the 1990s as well as a past president of the University of Tokyo.
In physics, the focus of cutting-edge research has shifted to such topics as the theory of elementary particles -- a world of subatomic particles -- and the use of highly sophisticated mathematics to trace back to the birth of the universe.
In contrast, chemists have traditionally devoted themselves to the study of elementary reaction. Thus, discovery of new elements has come with the development of modern science. Scientific pursuit of new elements, in fact, has a longer history than the Nobel Prize, which dates back to 1901.
In research, scientists have to go through the process of unlocking a number of mysteries and overcoming various challenges time and again. In recent years, Japanese scientists who did pioneering work in the fields of blue light-emitting diodes and induced pluripotent stem, or iPS, cells have won Nobel Prizes. Their practical and remarkable findings came to fruition only after long years in the lab.
Basic research -- everything from the development of standard technologies down to quality assessment methods -- is quite low-key but extremely important. The U.S. and European countries are strong at basic research.
Japan has focused on adopting various systems and new technologies from the West since its shift from feudalism to capitalism during the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s. But Japan has sometimes been criticized by Western countries for not having a true understanding of science -- even for enjoying a "free ride" on other countries' basic research.
The discovery of element 113 attests to the fact that Japanese researchers do toil away at seemingly not-so-applicable yet important research. "I think," said Kazuyuki Tatsumi, a designated professor at Nagoya University, "that the new element discovery is worth more than winning a Nobel Prize."