When I was at school, each year or grade was given a name designed to indicated the growing development of the child along humanistic lines, thus Elements (11 year olds), Rudiments (12 year olds), Grammar, Syntax, Poetry, Rhetoric I and Rhetoric II. It is, I think I am right in saying, a Jesuitical system (I know from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that James Joyce attended a school with a similar system).


The Jesuits were fond of rigorously building their little charges from nothing into something, and the elements of anything, it goes without saying, are the basics irreducible nuts and bolts of that thing, the beginnings of it. Thus the elements in chemistry, as we all know, are the irreducible atoms at large in the universe.

I find it puzzling therefore to consider that some elements – fundamental building blocks, as I was taught at school – can be generated only in the laboratory, and only for fractions of a second. You would be hard-pressed to build anything with these.

However, building block is probably a false metaphor, and new, unstable elements are frequently generated (or discovered) – in the last few days evidence has been released for the ‘existence’ of a new, as yet nameless, element, situated at position 115 on the table. We are to suppose that such supermassive elements are created frequently within stars, but decay as rapidly as they are made, no time to spill out across the cosmos.

Tom Lehrer would by now need a new verse to his famous song, in which he lists all of the elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General. And in fact in this version, recorded in Copenhagen in 1967, he acknowledges as much.


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