An Interview With A V Ramayya, Discoverer Of The 117th Element In The Periodic Table

by Karan Jani - Dec 31, 2016 10:45 AM +05:30 IST
An Interview With A V Ramayya, Discoverer Of The 117th Element In The Periodic TableA V Ramayya was part of an international collaboration that discovered Tennessine.
  • Karan Jani spoke to A V Ramayya on behalf of Swarajya about his discovery, nuclear energy technology and the state of science education in India, among other things.

Akunuri V Ramayya is a physicist and Professor of Physics at Vanderbilt University. He was part of an international collaboration that discovered the 117th element of the periodic table, recently named Tennessine.

Ramayya earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Andhra University in India before moving to the United States to receive his doctorate degree from Indiana University. From then on, he held positions at various universities, predominantly at Vanderbilt University, where he has been a professor since 1980.

Karan Jani spoke to Prof Ramayya on behalf of Swarajya about his discovery, nuclear energy technology and the state of science education in India, among other things.

Jani is a doctoral researcher in astrophysics and a scientist in the gravitational-wave experiment LIGO. A large part of his job is to understand black holes and test out Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. A co-recipient of the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, he was part of the LIGO team which detected the first gravitational waves.

This is Jani’s interview with Ramayya (edited for clarity):

So, professor, do the students of chemistry now have to learn about one more element in the periodic table?

(Chuckling) They have to learn one more element in the period table, yes. It’s a Group 7. So it has the same electronic structure as that of Chlorine, Bromine, Iodine, Astatine. Tennessine will fall into this group. That’s how the name Tennessine came about.

I see. So, the fact that it is one of the halogens? That’s how?

Yes, that’s right. (Halogens are given names that end in the suffix “-ine.”)

Tennessine on the periodic table (WKRN)
Tennessine on the periodic table (WKRN)

What does it mean to have a new element added to the periodic table?

The purpose of trying to produce the heavier elements is to locate the next magic number. For example, in the nuclear shell model, the elements with a proton number or a neutron number, like 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 and 126 -- these are called the magic numbers. And the elements with these magic numbers are more stable and have large isotropic change.

Now, the question is, what is the next magic number for the protons? So far, you know, the last magic number for protons is 82. What is the next magic number? For neutrons, we know it’s 126. So, the aim is to reach that magic number, and if we do, the elements will be more stable, and live for a longer time, and will probably have more uses for the general public.

In terms of wider applications in the field of technology, what suggestions can you put forward?

Right now, we produce a small number of atoms. But in Russia, they are building a bigger factory to produce the elements in large quantities. Once we do that, and we study the chemical properties of it, it will be a lot more useful in nuclear medicine and nuclear energy and so on.

Could you briefly describe the timeline, and how you went about making Tennessine, as well as your involvement in the process?

This (Tennessine) is produced by bombarding Berkelium 249 target with Calcium-48 B. The fused combined atom for nucleus then achieves a higher excitation energy, and it evaporates a certain number of neutrons. In this case, it was four neutrons. That is how Tennessine is produced to 117 atomic number. Because the atomic number of Calcium is 20 and that of Berkelium is 97, and if you add the two, you get 117. The neutron number will be something different -- it sometimes evaporates four neutrons, and at other times, three. And that’s how this element is produced.

You should remember, the cross-section is very, very, very small. So it took us about two years of beam time to produce only about 14 or 17 atoms -- I don’t remember exactly. That’s how it’s done. So, in the future, when the super-heavy factory is built, it will probably produce in thousands of quantities, or maybe in microgram quantities.

Is this a type of element that we can find naturally produced in the universe in some kind of an extreme process like the supernova?

It is possible. In supernova explosions, and there are some attempts now being made to look for these kinds of things, it is possible that you might find these super-heavy elements. It takes some time.

Can you list some grand, open problems in nuclear physics that you believe we would now be a little closer to cracking because of this new ability to produce heavy elements stably?

I think one will be able to understand more about the stability of the nucleus, and on how to predict the future stable nuclei, and what their properties are. But physics is an experimental science, and finally the outcome is decided only by the experiment and not theory. Theory gives us some direction, but we have to prove it by experiment.

One of the grand problems is to produce super-heavy elements. Another is to produce nuclei far from the line of beta stability. These experiments are nowadays being done in Michigan State University. We participated in some of these experiments. We also participated in Russia in looking for these super-heavy elements. This takes time and a lot of money.

To produce Tennessine, if I have to put a price tag on it, it will run into millions of dollars. It is not that easy to get that kind of funding. This happened by accident in a way.

In these six decades of a monumental academic career, what are the things that you feel have stayed with you as a scientist, since you started your career in Andhra Pradesh and up until now?

From Andhra, I came to Indiana University in Bloomington. I got my PhD there, in a record time of three-and-a-half years. Then, I came to Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee). In the meantime, I spent a year in Germany, and a year in Holland – several summers in Holland, and several summers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, and Rochester. In fact, the experiments we did it at Rochester, the same type of experiments are done in Dobra, to produce Tennessine 117. I think I should say I’m lucky in some sense.

A V Ramayya (Vanderbilt University)
A V Ramayya (Vanderbilt University)

After this long academic career, is there some sort of a grander quest that keeps you driving to pursue fundamental problems in physics?

I always liked fundamental physics. That was always my main goal. Even from India, I wanted to do this kind of research. I knew exactly what kind of problems I should tackle, and those are the ones I did.

When I was entering the field of nuclear physics, it was probably at the real cusp, because that was the time when nuclear energy was found, as well as non-conservation of parity, and there were lots of fundamental things which were exciting, and so we came here and did all those things.

You spoke about science funding. A constant debate that goes on in academia is on the stringent science funding. When you reflect on the relationship between science and government over the decades, do you think now there is more disconnect than before?

I think the US government doesn’t have a long-range science policy. That is the biggest problem that we face in America. 

There are better policies in Germany and other places. In America, we simply go from one year to the next. That is the biggest challenge.

I don’t know what kind of a science adviser President-elect Trump will choose. We had a good science policy when Allan Bromley was science adviser, but after that it hasn’t worked very well for us.

Do you also think that, in part, the way academia and the scientific community work, we have failed to produce communicators and policy-makers, and have rather gotten into the loop of maintaining publication records?

The scientific community has failed to communicate with the public. What we are doing must be communicated to the public in simple terms.

We should make every attempt to go to universities and other public places to explain to the general audience what we are doing. Because ultimately, the Congressmen and the Senators approve the budget. So it is very important to talk to them as much as possible, as well as to the general public.

In fact, a couple of years ago, when I went to India, I gave a speech at the Birla Centre. There were about 200 people, the room was full. They didn’t know that the nuclear reactor will not explode like an atomic bomb. Everyone thought the nuclear reactor, when it goes critical, will explode like an atomic bomb. This never happens with a nuclear reactor, it just dies.

See, what happened in Japan a couple of years ago, because of the enrichment of the uranium material. For an atomic bomb, the enrichment has to be above 90 per cent. For nuclear reactors, the enrichment is only about 10 to 15 per cent. So, the fuel will never reach the critical stage to explode.

In India, we have recently seen investment in mega science projects like the LIGO detector, Indian Neutrino Observatory, the ITER, etc. But do you think that India has, in the past, missed opportunities to be part of breakthrough research?

India has great potential. They are building the LIGO station in Maharashtra. That’s a great opportunity, and we must make use of it. India is also building a lot of nuclear reactors. But the only problem in India is, people have to be educated. They do not understand how to control the reactors and the consequences of not controlling it. As long as they are educated, and have the right people at the control centres, I think that’s (nuclear energy) the future of India – the future energy source, not only for India, but all over the world.

So, you believe it is critical for India to invest in nuclear reactors and nuclear energy?

Oh, yes, definitely, as fast as they can. People should not be afraid of it. If you look at the statistics, in the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the number of people who died were very, very small; you can count them on your fingers. People are unnecessarily scared of nuclear energy.

In India, we have the research institutes to handle research, and colleges do the teaching. Is that a good model? Or do you think we should follow the US model instead?

The best source of intellectuals is at the universities, and they (universities) have to be the grounds for building great students. 

India, in terms of intellectual ability, is number one in the world, I think. I get a lot of students from India, and also from China, and they are outstanding. They are the real source of knowledge. Universities should promote a lot of research.

We used to have good people in the past in the universities. Now, it has gone down in some sense. Now they have national labs. I used to be on the advisory committee for the nuclear science centre in Delhi. It takes some time to build that model, which we have to promote as much as we can.

The way science is taught in high schools in India -- do you think we need to fundamentally redefine that approach? There is now this rush to prepare for the ultra-competitive entrance exam to join an IIT or other such institutes. But in the process, we are not teaching the science right.

In fact, we are not teaching the science right in the universities. Up to the high school level, they are doing fine; but when it comes to colleges and universities, I don’t think they are doing it right. This the biggest problem in some of the universities, especially Andhra University.

Is it also the trend in India in particular that fundamental or basic science is not given the same attention as engineering or other fields?

Fundamental science is important, and engineering and fundamental science have to go side by side. But basic science, even here (US), will probably not fetch you much money. Nowadays, nanotechnology is the buzzword. Everyone wants to do nanotechnology. Some practical applications should be supported, but it has to go hand in hand. Unless you develop the fundamental science, you can’t develop applications.

When we discovered the electron, who expected it would have such an impact on the world. So, it takes a while. 

What wisdom could you share with a student who is starting a doctorate in physics?

He has to be persistent, and ask many questions that people never thought of asking.

There are no stupid questions in this world, just maybe stupid answers.

The wisdom I would give is, look into various fields and see what the future is, and what kind of questions you are trying to answer. That takes some effort. There are a lot of opportunities for people in this country and everywhere in the world.

Thank you, professor, for sparing some time and speaking to us.

Karan Jani is an astrophysicist and a recipient of the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics awarded by Stephen Hawking. He was listed by Forbes as 30 Most Influential Personalities Under 30.

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