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The Sciences

The Glory of Francium

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Francium--an element created as a uranium isotope decays into lead--typically survives only 23 minutes before turning into either astatine or radon. At any given time, less than an ounce of francium exists on Earth. Now physicists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have developed a way to trap enough francium--about 10,000 atoms--in their lab that they could take this photograph of the elusive element (inset). Instead of waiting for larger atoms to break down, the Stony Brook team created its francium by fusing accelerated oxygen nuclei into gold nuclei. The other methods create all sorts of things, and you have to separate out the francium, says Stony Brook physicist Luis Orozco. The great advantage we have is that we create only francium. The newly minted francium is captured in the glass chamber shown here, where it is surrounded by a magnetic field and cooled by lasers until it condenses to form a cloud less than a tenth of an inch in diameter. In the inset photograph, the francium is the yellow dot at the center. (The colors are false; yellow shows the densest area. The yellow blobs to the left and right are reflections off the glass chamber.) The Stony Brook team hopes to use its small francium stockpile to study the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for radioactive decay.

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