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How A Supercharged Beetle Helped Discover The Element Mendelevium

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On the periodic table of elements, there's a bunch of elements, usually named after famous scientists, that are known as synthetic elements. These are made by determined scientists with exciting-sounding machines called cylotrons or atom-smashers. And it seems a supercharged VW Beetle had a hand in the creation of one of them.

That old 16MM film up there tells the story — not just of the Beetle, but of the entire process used by Berkeley scientists to create Mendelevium in 1955. That old film was recently discovered in a dusty old box by retired physicist Claude Lyneis, who then added the audio and voice over. It's fascinating to see the process by which this sort of thing was done. It's also interesting to note that during this era various labs were engaged in a sort of nerdy competition to make these new elements, which I imagine gave them all kinds of bragging rights and their pick of physics/periodic table groupies.


The Beetle was owned by physicist Al Ghiorso, and was used as a rapid-delivery system to get the gold foil containing the new atoms, fresh from the cyclotron, to the other building on campus that housed the chemistry labs, where the atoms would be isolated and detected. Speed was important, which is why any old 36 HP Beetle just wouldn't do. That's where the supercharger comes in.

It was a Judson supercharger, which would give a 36 HP Beetle a dizzying 50 HP or so — not bad, considering both the featherweight of the car and the standards of the era. Ghiorso's son, Bill, recalls the car:

"Dad installed a Judson supercharger on that VW," he recalls. "We would drive to Yosemite in it, and it pulled a trailer."


It's not the Theory of Relativity, but I like knowing that crazy Bug had a small role in the history of physics. So next time you chug a big Mendelevium Shake, raise your glass to a bunch of determined scientists and their fast little car.

(Thanks BoingBoing!)