US scientist who found his element

Adventures in the Atomic Age
July 5, 2002

Sir Humphry Davy, so we are told, "...lived in the odium of having discovered sodium" and one might well wonder about the more recent discoverer of plutonium. Here is the story, in his own words.

The Seaborg family were Swedish-American immigrants, struggling to survive through the 1920s. On reaching high school in Watts, California, young Glenn felt no interest in science, and signed up for chemistry only because it was a requirement to take at least one science course. He happened upon a charismatic teacher and never looked back: within 25 years he had played a major part in the discovery of a string of hitherto unknown, "transuranic" elements, substantially reorganised Mendeleev's Periodic Table, and won a Nobel prize. Twenty years further on he was retiring from chairing the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) through ten of its most crucial years, and meanwhile getting on first-name terms with seven presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton.

How do people do these things? Some, of course, are born great, but Seaborg shrugs off this suggestion: "All my life I have been surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, but I found I could always keep up by working hard." Certainly he had the trick of being at the right place at the right time. By 1939 he was combining a research assistantship at Berkeley with informal involvement in the work of the Radiation Lab (subsequently Lawrence Livermore), where Ernest Lawrence had built a cyclotron that was capable, for the first time, of generating a wide range of new radio-isotopes and, as it turned out, "new" elements. Sorting these out was the job of Seaborg's chemistry, together with the radiation detection techniques developed by his ingenious physicist colleague, Al Ghiorso. Nuclear fission had recently been demonstrated in uranium and, by the following year, the team was on the trail of the, predictably fissionable, element 94, isotope 239 (security codenamed 49). It was another two years before Fermi's "atomic pile", in the University of Chicago squash court, had been found capable of producing useful quantities of the stuff, but from then on the plutonium project was in full swing.

The book tells a good story in a somewhat folksy style that suggests grandchildren, as well as fellow academics, may have been part of the target readership. Apart from family, however, there is very little suggestion of hinterland. Seaborg's work as AEC chairman involved him, of course, in very deep questions around the use and misuse of science and, although he latterly opposed the US administration in arguing for ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, he otherwise comes across as a cautious, safe pair of hands, with no qualms over the use to which his discovery has been put. Indeed, perhaps understandably given wartime pressures, even his scientific interests seem to have been excessively focused. With his central interest in the chemistry of plutonium, and in spite of a number of seemingly exculpatory comments on the great value of the new radio-isotopes in medicine, he seems quite incurious about the likely biochemical and metabolic behaviour of this new and humanly important element. Where he does stray into general remarks about radiobiology and speculates that small amounts of radiation may be "deterring cancer before it gets started", one wonders about the advice available to the AEC. Perhaps again reflecting the security culture surrounding much of his work, there is a strange feeling of parochialism: on one occasion he relates an encounter with C. P. Snow but, otherwise and except in high-power government delegations, he never mentions an interaction with a non-American scientific colleague. Outside Russia, where else could this have been true of a scientist of his stature?

It is a good tale that says much about the development of big 20th-century science in the hands of big government. But, from someone dropped so much into the midst of it, one could have wished for something a shade more rounded and thoughtful.

C. R. (Kit) Hill is emeritus professor of physics, Institute of Cancer Research, University of London, and secretary, British Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington

Author - Glenn T Seaborg, with Eric Seaborg
ISBN - 0 374 29991 9
Publisher - Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Price - $25.00
Pages - 312

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