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Glenn Seaborg: Chamberlain of Science

by Douglas PageŠ1998

The lights in the third floor lab were on late again the night of February 23, 1941. Room 307 in Gilman Hall on the campus of the University of California seemed more cluttered than usual. Perhaps it was the anticipation of what was about to happen. A group of young scientists, lead by a 28-year old chemist named Glenn T. Seaborg, were working late again, trying to understand the synthesis of heavy elements.

Word had reached them of the work of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman in Germany, where the first experiments providing evidence of a nuclear fission reaction had recently been carried out. The Germans had irradiated bits of uranium with neutrons, creating new isotopes. Germany was now positioned to employ atomic fission in a powerful new weapon. Much of this startling news had been relayed to the Americans by the brigade of top scientists vacating fascist-bound Europe, among them Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Lise Meitner. War fever ran high on both shores.

At the University of California physicists Edwin M. McMillan and Philip H. Abelson immediately began an attempt to duplicate the German results in Berkeley's cyclotrons. While calculating the energy of the fission fragments after the nucleus split, McMillan noticed another source of radioactivity, one that didn't spin away from its source. He theorized the substance had been formed when the uranium nucleus captured a neutron but did not split. They had, in fact, discovered a new isotope - element 93, later named neptunium.

McMillan, speculating other elements might form the same way, enlisted Seaborg to help find the next element, number 94. Seaborg was a logical choice. Soon after Seaborg earned his Ph.D., Gilbert N. Lewis, the famed dean of the Berkeley college of chemistry, recruited Seaborg as his personal research assistant. When McMillan requested him, Seaborg was already proficient performing chemical separations on Berkeley's atom smashers. Working with physicists Jack Livingood and Emilio Segre' for several years, Seaborg had discovered numerous radioisotopes, among them iodine-131, iron-59, cobalt-60 and technetium-99m, all of which have been used in medical imaging and radiation therapy from that day to this. McMillan, however, soon called away by the War Department to begin work at MIT on the development of radar, left Seaborg to search for element 94. (Both later shared the Nobel Prize resulting from this work.)

Seaborg formed a group consisting of colleague Joseph W. Kennedy and graduate student Arthur C. Wahl, then resumed the search in December, 1940, bombarding sprinkles of uranium oxide in the 60-inch cyclotron with deuterium nuclei, producing and separating neptunium.

The Night the World Changed 

For the next 10 weeks Seaborg's team pursued the radiation emitting from the samples of neptunium-238 without success. Then, late on a rainy Sunday night, February 23, 1941, the world changed. Isotope 94-238, produced by the beta decay of neptunium-238 after a four hour bombardment, was identified. Later, the new substance was named plutonium.

Quietly, the Seaborg team congratulated each other, then went home to bed.

Within a month, with Segre''s help, the Seaborg team discovered the hidden nature of plutonium. An isotope of element 94 - plutonium-239 - stable, with a half-life of 24,000 years, fissioned more readily than uranium-235, characteristics ideal for atomic weaponry. Within weeks Seaborg was asked to contribute his plutonium expertise to the newly formed Manhattan Project. On his thirtieth birthday, April 19, 1942, Glenn Theodore Seaborg joined Enrico Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where work commenced to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb. On August 9, 1945 the efficiency of the device was demonstrated when a plutonium bomb evaporated much of Nagasaki, Japan - radiating a shudder of such appalling awe the world continues to shiver.

Storied Career

Thus began Seaborg's life in public service - one of the most storied careers of twentieth century science.

It is not uncommon for great scientists to do their most significant work at an early age, though many never again manage to produce work equal to the gravity of their original contributions. Most ascendant careers flash like sounding rockets, then dissipate into the background. Seaborg's supernal career, on the other hand, reached an early zenith, then stayed on orbit, remaining on that lofty plane of continuous, original achievement.

Following his work with Fermi on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg, a native of Ishpeming, Mich. and the eldest of two children of Swedish emigrants, was given a full professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as director of the chemistry division at its radiation laboratory for twelve years.

In the 15 years between 1942 and 1958 Seaborg was involved in the discovery of eight more transuranium elements, 95 through 102. In 1974 he helped discover his tenth, element 106, later named after him. Element 110, found in 1994, is co-claimed by a Berkeley team which included Seaborg, GSI (the German heavy ion research center that joined the quest for superheavy elements in 1969), and the Russian nuclear facility at Dubna. The Berkeley team of Seaborg and colleague Albert Ghiorso are responsible for the discovery of roughly 10 percent of all known elements.

Seaborg, the only person in history to hold a patent on a chemical element, owns patents on two, americium and curium. (Americium-241 is used in smoke detectors.)

In 1958, at age 46, Seaborg succeeded Clark Kerr, becoming the second Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Usually reserved, Seaborg delights in recalling his two and one-half years as Chancellor, a period when Berkeley's athlete teams excelled as never before or since, winning the men's national basketball championship in 1958, finishing second the following year, winning the national intercollegiate crew championship in 1960, and sending its 1958 football team to the Rose Bowl.

Then, in 1961, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, Seaborg left the University of California, on a 10-year leave to chair the Atomic Energy Commission. In his unofficial capacity as chamberlain of science and education he has advised 10 consecutive U.S. presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Over the years the prolific Seaborg has written more than 25 books, published over 500 scientific papers and collected dozens of honors, including the 1951 Nobel Prize (no Nobel laureate has held the prize longer while living), seven awards from the American Chemical Society, the Enrico Fermi Award (1959), the Franklin Medal (1963), the Nuclear Pioneer Award (1971), Gold Plate Award (1972), Gold Medal Award (1973), French Legion of Honor (1973), the Great Swedish Heritage Award (1984), the Clark Kerr Medal (1986), the Vannevar Bush Award (1988), the National Medal of Science (1991), and the Royal Order of the Polar Star (1992). In 1995 the discoverers of asteroid 4856 named the object "Seaborg". A dozen or so awards exist in his name; three of which he won himself. He's unlikely to win the new Glenn T. Seaborg Award at the UC Berkeley Athletic Department, given to a Golden Bear football player who distinguishes himself after graduation.

56 Years After Plutonium

Fifty-six years after the chilling discovery of plutonium, Seaborg, 85, still tireless and still fit, continues to put in five full days a week of research and writing. As Associate Director At-Large of the Earnest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) - direct descendant of the Rad Lab, he maintains a schedule that would exhaust someone half his age.

Seaborg's trim, alpine appearance reflects his life-long interest in fitness and health. He consumes no chocolate, caffeine or alcohol, sleeps nine hours each night, eats a full breakfast and maintains a low-fat, near-vegetarian diet. A hiker of renown, he takes two walks a day and has threaded his 6-foot 3-inch ensiform frame through most of the trails of the West. When the 1980 HikaNation walk across America was being mapped, the organizers approached Seaborg, who knew the best way to cross California on foot.

Seaborg's scientific career continues to soar in rarified air. Working with Albert Ghiorso, Ken Gregorich and Victor Ninov, the team at LBNL are in another race with the Germans, this time to find still more superheavy elements. Seaborg's work with Ghiorso is legendary. Ghiorso, 82, co-discoverer of 12 transuranium elements, is considered the world record holder for discovering atomic elements, having participated in the discoveries of all elements on the chart from 95 to 106, two more than Seaborg. (Seaborg, diverted by a 12 year sortie into administration, was not involved in the discoveries of elements 103-105.) However, there may be more.

"I think there are half a dozen or so more to be discovered," Seaborg says. "Maybe more. They're getting very short-lived, on the order of milliseconds or even microseconds. But there is the possibility of closed-shell - points of stability as you go on, particularly at atomic number 114." Like the electron cloud of the atom, atomic nuclei exhibit a shell structure, where the arrangement of certain numbers of neutrons and protons - the so-called "magic numbers" - yields particularly stable configurations. Examples of this phenomenon include the "double magic" nuclei helium 4, oxygen 16, calcium 40 and 48, and lead 208. In these nuclei the protons and neutrons form filled (closed) shells, so the nuclei have particularly high binding energies. Whether such shell arrangements in the nuclei of elements much heavier than uranium can provide enough stability that the elements can be synthesized and identified is a question nuclear physics is attempting to answer. Early calculations predict a region of stability near element 114.

"That means the half-lives [of superheavy elements], instead of becoming so short you couldn't measure them, will increase to the range of seconds or minutes so we can synthesize and identify them," said Seaborg. "That's what we're trying here at Berkeley with Ghiorso and his team. Of course, they're doing the same at GSI and Dubna." GSI already has notches on their colliders for elements 107-112.

Understanding the upper limits of stability of atomic nuclei is fundamentally important in understanding the physics of nuclear structure, helping to explain the structure of matter in the universe.

The Berkeley team hopes to find elements 113 and 114, particularly 114. They're preparing the detection apparatus for the bombardment of Pu-244 with Ca-48, Seaborg explained, which forms the compound nucleus 114, mass number 292, which should boil out a few neutrons to produce element 114 with a mass number in the range 287-289.

Competing for Time

As always, activities other than pure science compete for Seaborg's time. He spreads himself around, but it requires a staff of three to allocate his time and keep up with the bins of correspondence that find him. He travels extensively, speaking, lecturing and collecting awards. Last year, at the University of Paris, South, during the centennial celebration of the discovery of radioactivity in Paris he retrieved his fiftieth honorary doctorate. He collected another May 30 at the University of Waterloo.

He lectures regularly to chemistry and political science classes, on the UC campus and off. In May, for example, he gave a series of distinguished lectures at the University of Louisville - allowing for attendance at the Kentucky Derby.

Each day a tremendous new stack of mail greets him, some from school kids around the world who want advice or an autograph. A member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that produced the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk", his enthusiasm for promoting education has never dwindled. He answers every letter with a word of encouragement, telling children to "stay in school, study, work hard and excel".

For the past 71 years, beginning at age 14, Seaborg has found time to keep his journal current. "I have 90 volumes here on my shelf," he says. His journals may one day join the estimated 500,000 other items in his collection already reposing in the Library of Congress.

And, he is working on seven more books. All at once. They are, "A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War"; "The Transuranium People", personalities of the scientists involved; an autobiography; "Roses From the Ashes", about the demise of the old Pacific Coast (athletic) Conference and Seaborg's contribution to the birth of the Pac 10, its replacement; "The Travels of a Nuclear Ambassador," a journal of AEC chairman Seaborg's visit to 60 countries; "Modern Nuclear Chemistry"; and "The Impact of Science on Our Society".

Does a man writing seven books have time to read? He recently read his son's book, "American Discoveries", by Ellen Dudley and Eric Seaborg. "At present I'm reading Deborah Shapley's 'Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara'", said Seaborg, whose favorite book is Sinclair Lewis' "Arrowsmith". "I just finished 'Essays of a Scientist', by Soviet scientist Vitalii Goldanskii, and actress Ann Margret's 'My Story'. Ann-Margret and I shared the Swedish Heritage Award in 1984 and we've been in touch ever since. She's a good friend - not necessarily of Mrs. Seaborg's," he joked. Of all his achievements, Seaborg is fond of saying his most important discovery was his wife, Helen, whom he found in Earnest O. Lawrence's office at Berkeley and to whom he has been married since 1942.

Does the man who is hero to so many, have heroes himself? "I don't know that I have any present heroes," he said. "My heroes in the past were the great scientists, Gilbert Lewis and Enrico Fermi. They were true scientists to the core." Lewis introduced Seaborg to the concept of valence and bonding, encouraging him to "work hard".

The Actinide Incident

Of all his honors, awards, discoveries and offices he admits without hesitation he is most proud of the Actinide Concept, a re-arrangement of the periodic table of the elements which moved the heaviest elements to the bottom. "The heaviest elements at the time - thorium, protoactinium and uranium - were up in the body of the table. In 1944 I moved them to where they are now, at the bottom, a separate row analogous to the rare-earth lanthanide elements." It was a somewhat audacious suggestion for a 32 years old scientist. No one had found it necessary to adjust the periodic table since 1869 when Mendeleev first configured it. "It was a very unpopular move at the time," Seaborg mused. "I was told it would ruin my scientific reputation."

That wasn't the first advice Seaborg ignored. At Jordan High in Los Angeles Seaborg went against his parents' wishes that he pursue commercial classes that could lead to a white-collar job. He chose, instead, college prep classes. As a UCLA undergraduate during the Great Depression, unaware of the scope of his genius, he settled on chemistry, a skill providing more job opportunities than physics.

Not only did Seaborg's scientific reputation survive the actinide incident, it has been boosted to the ultimate pantheon of scientific fame. Seaborg is now the first living person in history with an element named after him. (Subject to confirmation by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry at their Geneva meeting in August, element 106 henceforth becomes seaborgium - symbol Sg.) Only eleven other people - Einstein, Fermi, Lawrence, Mendeleev, Rutherford, Bohr, Nobel, Meitner, the Curies and Hahn - are immortalized on the periodic table of the elements. K

One suspects the wrong element was picked to name after Glenn Seaborg. Gold would have been a better choice, both treasured for common characteristics - softness, durability and, above all, unsurpassed brilliance.


Suggested Reading

Seaborg, G.T., National Service With Ten Presidents of the United States, monograph, 1992.

Seaborg, G.T., with Katz, J.J, and Morss, L.R., The Chemistry of the Actinide Elements, second edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1986.

Seaborg, G.T., with Loeb, B.S., Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Test Ban, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1981.

Kathren, R.L., Gough, J.B., and Benefiel, G.T., eds, The Plutonium Story: The Journals of Prof. Glenn T. Seaborg, 1939-1946, Batelle Press, Columbus, Ohio, 1994.


This profile appeared in Issue No. 11 (1998) of Science Spectra. 

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