From certain angles, the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions here looks more like an auto repair shop than a legendary scientific institute. Scientists in dirty blue smocks walk around while an oil pump thumps out a techno beat. Tables are strewn with bolts and cleaning fluids, including a vodka bottle half full of ethanol. And spare parts are everywhere—bins, shelves, whole walls full of metal whatsits in all manner of disrepair.
All that stuff serves the lab’s six particle accelerators, some of which resemble huge mechanical caterpillars, with dozens of tractor-green segments winding through entire rooms. Or multiple rooms: When equipment doesn’t fit, researchers knock holes in walls and thread things through the concrete. Seeing the whole of an accelerator requires some serious gymnastika, scaling perilously steep stairs and dodging anacondas of hanging wires. The pipes you duck under bear warning signs to watch out—not for your head, but for the equipment. At Flerov, particles have the right of way.
Deservedly so. In various iterations, these accelerators have produced nine new elements on the periodic table over the past half-century, including the five heaviest known elements, up to number 118.
The man leading that work is physicist Yuri Oganessian, who has been at Flerov since Nikita Khrushchev signed orders in 1956 to establish a secret nuclear lab in the birch forests here, 2 hours north of Moscow. Oganessian, 85, is a short man with bushy white hair whose voice squeaks when he gets excited. He wanted to study architecture in college until a bureaucratic snafu diverted him into physics. He still misses his first love: “I really need something visual with my science. I feel this deficit.”
Fittingly, no living person has shaped the architecture of the periodic table more than he has, which is why element 118 is called oganesson. And he’s not done yet. To push the table further, the lab has built a new $60 million facility, dubbed the Superheavy Element Factory (SHEF), which will start to hunt for element 119, 120, or both, this spring.