Monday, September 28, 2009

118. Ununoctium


Now You See It Now You

Ununoctium was discovered in 1999 by a team of scientists at Berkeley Laboratory who created three atoms of Element 118 by fusing krypton-86 with lead-208. It was undiscovered two years later by that same team. Which means that after a long run as the heaviest undiscovered transfermian element, it briefly served as the heaviest known transfermian element, before reverting to its prior, undiscovered state. For which reason several wags suggested it be named "schrodingerium," after Schrodinger's cat.

Ununoctium, however, is a cat not only of a different color but of a different temperament altogether. It is a Cheshire Cat of an element, the first of the trans-transfermian elements known as the Cheshirides. The distinguishing characteristic of a Cheshire element is that it has a negative half-life. X days after coming into being, it ceases having ever existed. Then its nonexistence similarly decays, and once again it's real. It cycles in and out of existence.

Now it's here. Now it's not. Now it's here again.

Just like that.

How you feel about the Cheshirides says a lot about your personality. Is the glass half empty or half full? Are you unwilling to live with ambiguity? Does having something firmly in your grasp and then opening your hand to discover that somehow it's gone make you angry? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you're simply not cut out to be a physicist.

To a pessimist, ununoctium is like life: nasty, brutish, and painful—and then, all too soon, it's over. To an optimist, it's also like life: a miracle that's been thrust upon us, as unlikely as a unicorn or a griffin, but better than either because it's real.

But wait! Neither viewpoint describes ununoctium as it really is. Because after it's all over and done with, it pops into existence again, as inevitable as the dawn. So it's not like life at all, but more like fiction—always ending, always beginning, there whenever you want it. So it's over! So what? It's not like death, that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. There's no need for regret. Grief is pointless. If you're sorry it's finished, there's always a solution.

Go back to the beginning and start all over again.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.


  1. Thank you for writing and posting these. Beautiful.

  2. empty -> bare

    Everyone has already been dead.

  3. alysdexia, you sure do like to correct people, hm?