#3 was Glenn Seaborg

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Tue, 9 Mar 1999 04:03:30 -0800

Duh: Seaborg, Kubrick, and DiMaggio... Economist follows -- RK

Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Theodore Seaborg, creator of plutonium, died on February 25th, aged 86

IT IS rare to name a chemical element after a living person. But
Glenn Seaborg had an exceptional claim to that honour. He added ten
elements to the periodic table-amounting to almost a tenth of all the
elements known. So the American Chemical Society, which struggled
against international opposition to allow this exception, was simply
recognising someone who had significantly extended its field of play
when element number 106 (the last to be discovered by Dr Seaborg) was
officially dubbed "seaborgium" in March 1997.
Glenn Seaborg was not the first modern alchemist to transmute
existing elements into previously unknown ones. Technetium and
neptunium had already been made at the University of California at
Berkeley (taking the number of known elements to 93) by the time Dr
Seaborg got his hands on the campus's particle accelerator, the
cyclotron. He was, however, the most prolific of alchemists. America,
California and Berkeley itself gave their names to elements that Dr
Seaborg found. So have Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi
(who built the first nuclear reactor), Dmitry Mendeleev (who invented
the periodic table) and Alfred Nobel (whose prize Dr Seaborg won in
For those unfamiliar with the nether end of the periodic table,
however, there is a more sinister reason to acknowledge Dr Seaborg's
achievement. The first of the elements he made in his laboratory at
Berkeley was plutonium. Had, say, the Germans or the Japanese beaten
him to it, the history of the past half-century might have turned out
quite differently.

Manhattan transfer
Dr Seaborg's was a very American success story. He was born in
Ishpeming, an iron-working town in Michigan. His mother had come from
Sweden, and he learned Swedish before he learned English (which stood
him in good stead when he received his Nobel prize from the king of
Sweden). His father was a machinist. So were his grandfather and his
When Dr Seaborg became head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and
appeared before a Senate committee, there was an echo of his family
history when the father of Al Gore, the vice-president, complained
that machinists were being laid off in large numbers by the AEC's Oak
Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Mr Gore's state. Dr Seaborg
eased the tension by observing that he, too, would have been a
machinist, had he had the talent for it.
His great talent was for science. He became a chemist, arriving at
Berkeley in 1934. There he met Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the
cyclotron, who gave him a leg up in his career. Dr Seaborg created
plutonium for the first time in 1940, using the cyclotron to shoot
deuterium ions into uranium atoms so fast that their nuclei merged.
Militarily, the stuff was a wonder. Plutonium turned out to be easy
to produce in nuclear reactors. The only other candidate as a nuclear
explosive, enriched uranium, was (and remains) difficult to

Dr Seaborg was recruited into the Manhattan Project (America's
wartime effort to build an atomic bomb), along with Lawrence, by
Robert Oppenheimer-another Berkeley man, who had become leader of the
project. He worked out, among other things, how to separate plutonium
from uranium in a reactor after it had been synthesised. When the
bomb was built, however, he was among the Manhattan scientists who
put their names to a letter to President Truman asking that the
Japanese be given a demonstration-and a chance to surrender-before
the device was used on a city. Their plea was rejected. The plutonium
bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th 1945, three days after a
uranium bomb had destroyed Hiroshima.

In the nervous era of the cold war, he worked the system well enough
to survive as head of the AEC for ten years and three presidents:
Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. As he proved with the elder Mr Gore, he
knew how to humour politicians. He also knew when to keep his mouth
shut. He wrote in an autobiographical essay, "When an irascible
elderly senator demanded, 'What do you know about plutonium?' I gave
a vague but reassuring answer. I knew from experience that
embarrassing him in public would have led to a larger budget cut than
we were already in for."
The episode of the diaries was another matter. Glenn Seaborg had kept
a diary since the age of 14. When he left the AEC he showed the
security people the diaries he had kept while he worked for the
commission. They cleared them, except for small deletions. In 1985,
however, a different group of spooks took an interest. The volumes
disappeared into the government maw and when returned to Dr Seaborg
were massively defaced. The pages removed included such sensitive
material as a description of his children's games at Hallowe'en, and
an account of a holiday in the English Lake District. It was a shabby
way to treat a distinguished public servant.