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If you like Glenn Seaborg's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Leon Lederman,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Edward Teller,
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Edward O. Wilson

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Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Seaborg
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Glenn Seaborg Biography

Discoverer of Plutonium

Glenn Seaborg Date of birth: April 19, 1912
Date of death: February 25, 1999

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  Glenn Seaborg

Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, a small community dominated by a single industry, iron mining. Three generations of Seaborg men before him, Americans of Swedish descent, worked as machinists. His mother was a more recent immigrant from rural Sweden, and young Glenn spoke Swedish before he learned English. The family owned their house, but the land under their feet belonged to the iron company, and opportunities for advancement were severely limited. Mrs. Seaborg wanted something better for her son, and at her insistence, the family moved to Southern California when he was ten years old. They settled in what is now the city of South Gate, in Los Angeles County. The town had no high school, so Glenn attended David Star Jordan High School in nearby Watts.

An imaginative teacher ignited young Seaborg's interest in science. He graduated at the top of his class and won admission to the University of California, Los Angeles. Although he was fascinated by physics, a degree in chemistry seemed more useful in the straitened economy of the Depression. He paid for his education by working as a longshoreman and boxing fruit in a packing house, until he was qualified to work as a laboratory assistant.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
Seaborg entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1934. Berkeley in the '30s was a hotbed of activity in the new field of atomic research, home to such luminaries as the imperious Robert Oppenheimer, and Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron. Seaborg, a shy youngster from a working class family, found himself among the most brilliant scientific minds in the country. He counted on one trait to distinguish himself, his enormous capacity for work. He spent his days assisting the renowned chemist Gilbert M. Lewis and his evenings in the UC Radiation Laboratory (now known as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), a facility full of physicists where his skills as a chemist set Seaborg apart. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1937, and after two more years of assisting in the laboratories, joined the faculty in 1939.

That same year, the news that nuclear fission had been achieved in Germany galvanized the field of atomic research. With war already raging in Europe and Asia, the federal government took an increasing interest in nuclear research. Lawrence's cyclotron had made possible the synthesis and isolation of new chemical elements, with an atomic number higher than that of uranium (element 92). Seaborg created numerous isotopes, variations on existing elements, possessing the same number of protons (atomic number) but different numbers of neutrons, giving them a different atomic mass. Most of these isotopes had no immediate practical application, but when a medical researcher requested a variant on iodine for the study of thyroid metabolism, Seaborg created a new isotope to order. The result, Iodine-131, is still commonly used in the treatment of thyroid disease. Its use prolonged the life of Seaborg's own mother for many years. Other isotopes of Seaborg's creation have proved useful in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
In 1941, Seaborg led the research team that isolated a completely new element, plutonium (atomic number 94). Seaborg realized it could provide explosive fuel for a massively destructive weapon, and his discovery was kept secret from the public. He also participated in the isolation of isotopes of uranium, and discovered that uranium 235 was capable of fission, a second means of producing an atomic bomb.

With the entry of the United States into World War II, the federal government initiated a massive effort, the Manhattan Project, to create the first nuclear weapon. German science appeared to have an insurmountable head start, and American scientists worked under intense pressure, with separate parts of the project carried out at different locations, each barely aware of the others' work. Seaborg was tapped to head one section of the project, to be carried out at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory.

To date, plutonium had only been produced in microscopic quantities. Seaborg was tasked with creating an automated process to produce the newly-discovered element in sufficient quantities to be used in nuclear weapons. Seaborg and his team labored 12 hours a day, six days a week, until Seaborg was hospitalized for exhaustion. After three years of intense work, Seaborg and his team had produced just enough plutonium for two bombs, but these were enough to end the most destructive war in human history.

After the successful testing of the first atom bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, Seaborg joined six other Manhattan Project scientists in signing a letter to President Harry S. Truman, called the Franck Report. In it, they recommended that Japanese observers be invited to witness an atom bomb test, so that Japan would have the opportunity to surrender before the bomb was used on human population centers. The Franck Report was rejected, and a uranium 235 device was detonated over Hiroshima Japan on August 6, 1945. The Japanese did not surrender until a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
With the coming of peace, President Truman appointed Seaborg to the General Advisory Committee of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. He was the only member of the committee to recommend development of the hydrogen bomb, a recommendation he made reluctantly, knowing that the Soviet Union would proceed with developing this weapon in any event.

During his work in Chicago, Seaborg discovered two new chemical elements, americium (atomic number 95) and curium (number 96). He was successful in patenting both elements. To date, they are the only chemical elements ever patented. Americium is today the effective component of the common household smoke detector.

On returning to Berkeley after the war, Seaborg became Director of the Division of Nuclear Chemistry of the Radiation Laboratory, where he led the discovery of eight new elements: berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium and nobelium (elements 97 through 102). This increased the number of known elements by 10 percent, more elements than had been discovered by any previous person in history.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
The discovery of elements by nuclear researchers is actually the synthesis and identification of elements which had not previously existed in nature. Separating the atoms of the new elements from the many other atoms that surround them is only possible if the properties of the new element can be predicted accurately. The challenge for the pioneering nuclear researchers was to devise processes which they knew would result in the creation of elements with specific properties. Seaborg succeeded in this by rethinking the relationship of chemical elements, as represented in the periodic table.

Seaborg proposed a radical rearrangement of the periodic table, a design unchanged since the table was first introduced by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev in 1869. Seaborg based his design on his "actinide concept," named for the series of radioactive elements (89-103) that include uranium and the new trans-uranium elements he and his colleagues had produced at Berkeley and Chicago. Colleagues warned Seaborg that challenging a universally accepted view of the relationship of the elements was too radical a break with scientific orthodoxy to be accepted by the world scientific community. Some said it would mean the end of his career, but Seaborg was convinced he was right, and his new table was soon adopted by chemists around the world.

His achievements were honored with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1951. At 39, Seaborg was one of the youngest persons ever to receive the award. The trip to Sweden to accept the honor was exceptionally gratifying for Seaborg. The attendant publicity enabled him to highlight the contribution of Swedish Americans to American society as a whole.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
In addition to his research, Seaborg was active in all aspects of university life at Berkeley. in the 1950s, he served as the faculty representative to the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. When a recruiting scandal threw the conference into chaos, Seaborg assisted in drafting the rules for a new association, known today as the Pac Ten. Seaborg's effort was instrumental in rebuilding the conference and restoring standards of integrity to collegiate sport.

In 1958, he was appointed Chancellor of the University; he was only the second individual to hold the post. It was a source of particular pride to him that his tenure as Chancellor was one in which Berkeley's athletic teams enjoyed an unprecedented streak of victories, winning titles in basketball, football and baseball. These were also significant years of expansion for the Berkeley campus, with the construction of over a dozen major new buildings, and the creation of new research institutes and laboratory facilities. Seaborg relaxed old restrictions on campus political activity, setting the stage for the flowering of student activism in the 1960s.

Seaborg was called on to advise the government again at the end of the '50s, chairing a panel of President Dwight Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee to study the integration of basic research with graduate science education. The Seaborg Report, as the panel's findings were known, provided the blueprint for American supremacy in basic research for the next 25 years. Beginning in the 1980s, government funding for basic research declined dramatically, and Seaborg was a vocal, if unheeded, advocate for the importance of pure research to his country's security and prosperity.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
In 1961, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked Seaborg to serve as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the agency that oversaw all uses of atomic energy in the United States: military, scientific, industrial and medical. Seaborg enjoyed a warm relationship with the new president and enthusiastically supported his efforts to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. Seaborg served on the committee that drafted the American position in the negotiations. In the end, Kennedy secured Soviet agreement to a ban on the open-air testing of nuclear weapons, and the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate, despite strenuous political resistance in the United States. Seaborg later concluded that the U.S., through excessive caution, had missed an opportunity to secure a ban on all further nuclear weapon tests, and that the expense and danger of the subsequent arms race could have been avoided.

After the death of President Kennedy in 1963, Seaborg enjoyed an even closer relationship with Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. During Johnson's presidency a multilateral non-proliferation treaty was concluded, restricting the spread of nuclear weapons. Seaborg presided over a substantial growth in the civilian use of nuclear power. When he took office, there were only two nuclear power plants in operation in the United States. By the time he left, 70 were online or under construction. Seaborg had a more difficult relationship with President Richard Nixon and was glad to return to Berkeley when his term as AEC Chairman expired in 1971. He continued to advise American presidents on scientific matters in a number of capacities, and to urge negotiation of a comprehensive ban on the testing of nuclear weapons.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
In the 1970s, Seaborg served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Chemical Society. In 1980, he achieved the cherished dream of the medieval alchemists, synthesizing gold from a less valued element, bismuth. Seaborg was well aware that this was a purely scientific exercise, as the expense of the process far exceeded the market value of the gold produced.

When President Ronald Reagan appointed Seaborg to a National Commission on Excellence in Education, Seaborg found the first draft of the commission's findings hopelessly timid and understated. He threatened to publish a dissenting opinion if the document was not re-written in stronger terms. At Seaborg's insistence, the finished paper began with the words, "We are a nation at risk." This phrase gave the influential study the name by which it is commonly known. The report was praised by the President, but to Seaborg's disappointment, no serious federal commitment resulted, and American science education continued to decline. Seaborg was also unhappy with the security procedures of the Reagan White House, particularly when he was told that his personal journals from the AEC years required security review, after they had been de-classified for over a decade.

Glenn Seaborg Biography Photo
Seaborg had more satisfying experiences in the laboratory. His remaining years at Berkeley culminated in the discovery of chemical element 106, in 1994. The element was named seaborgium in his honor, a designation confirmed in 1997. He founded the Lawrence Hall of Science on the Berkeley campus, and served as its Chairman, as well as Associate Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Over the course of his career, he wrote 50 books and more than 500 scholarly articles. To the end of his life, he followed the latest developments in atomic research, and embraced new communications technology to advocate for science education and for arms control on his own web site.

Glenn Seaborg and his wife, Helen, had six children. He died at home in Lafayette, California in 1999, two months short of his 87th birthday. His autobiography, Adventures in the Atomic Age, co-written with his son Eric, was published posthumously in 2001.

This page last revised on Feb 23, 2008 18:11 EDT
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