Seaborg, Glenn Theodore

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SEABORG, Glenn Theodore

(b. 19 April 1912 in Ishpeming, Michigan; d. 25 February 1999 in Lafayette, California), nuclear chemist, cowinner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry, longtime chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the only scientist to have an element named after him (seaborgium) while still alive.

Seaborg's parents were the Swedish immigrants Herman Theodore, a machinist, and Selma Erickson Seaborg. When Seaborg was ten, his mother urged the family to move to southern California, where she believed Seaborg and his sister could get a better education than in the iron-mining town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where they were born. Seaborg graduated from David Attar Jordan High School in Los Angeles in 1929, the valedictorian of his class. Educated at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he originally enrolled as a literature major, Seaborg received a B.A. in 1934 and did his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1937 under the direction of Gilbert N. Lewis.

At Berkeley he was a research associate to Lewis from 1937 to 1939, and they published a number of scientific papers together. In 1939 Seaborg and Emilio Segrè were the codiscoverers of technetium 99m, a radioisotope used extensively in nuclear medicine. That same year Seaborg was made an instructor, then an assistant professor in 1941, interrupted by his participation in the Manhattan Project in Chicago, and became a full professor of chemistry in 1946. That year he was also named as the director of nuclear research at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Seaborg married Helen L. Griggs, Lawrence's secretary, on 6 June 1942; they eventually had six children.

From 1940 to 1957 Seaborg and his coworkers added ten new elements to the periodic table (atomic numbers 94 to 102 and 106). Seaborg discovered plutonium in February 1941 after bombarding a sample of uranium with deuterons and transmuting it to plutonium, using the 60-inch cyclotron built by Lawrence. Plutonium is the best known of the elements Seaborg discovered because of its use as a nuclear explosive and for nuclear power. The plutonium 238 isotope was discovered in 1940; the fissionable plutonium 239 isotope in 1941.

Beginning in April 1942, Seaborg's extensive knowledge of radioactive materials prompted his participation during World War II in the Manhattan Project (the U.S. effort to create an atomic bomb) as a section chief at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. There he was responsible for isolating plutonium from the reaction products of the newly devised uranium reactors. However, he opposed dropping the bomb on Japan, foreshadowing his later advocacy for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Seaborg's research group also discovered americium (atomic number 95) in 1944; curium (96) in 1944 to 1945; berkelium (97) in 1949; californium (98) in 1949; einsteinium (99), identified from nuclear explosion debris, in 1952; fermium (100), identified in 1955 from the decay of nuclear explosion products; mendelevium (101) in 1955; nobelium (102), discovered in 1957 at the Nobel Institute of Physics in Stockholm; and seaborgium (106) in 1974, created by a team at Berkeley. Seaborgium was officially named in 1997, the first time an element had been named for a living person. All of these elements are radioactive, and none occurs to any appreciable extent in nature; they are synthesized by transmutation reactions in a laboratory setting.

Seaborg worked extensively on reorganizing the periodic table to show the relationship of the new elements to those already known. In 1944 he enunciated the actinide concept, which states that the fourteen elements heavier than actinium belong in a separate group in the periodic table, forming a transition series analogous to the rare earth series of lanthanide elements. This concept had great impact on predicting the chemical properties and placements of heavy elements on the table, and it was one of the most significant changes in the design of the periodic table since its creation. Seaborg and his group were also responsible for identifying more than 100 isotopes of elements through the periodic table.

The information assembled in Seaborg's laboratory had made possible the prediction of radioactive characteristics of isotopes and elements yet to be found. Not only that, whole new bodies of methodology and instrumentation developed during that research became a cornerstone of nuclear chemistry.

From 1947 to 1950 Seaborg served on the first General Advisory Committee for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), chaired by Robert Oppenheimer. He shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Edwin McMillan for research into the transuranium elements. He was Berkeley's chancellor from 1958 to 1961, overseeing an extensive building program that included the new College of Environmental Design and the Space Sciences Laboratory, and he served as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (1959–1961). President Dwight D. Eisenhower selected him for the National Science Foundation's National Science Board (1960–1961). In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the chairmanship of the AEC (later the U.S. Department of Energy). He held that position from 1961 to 1971 under the administrations of presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, longer than any other chair. During this time Seaborg lived in Washington, D.C., on leave from Berkeley. He encouraged both the rapid growth of the U.S. nuclear power industry and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In 1971 Seaborg returned to the Berkeley campus as the associate director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory until 1975. He was named the University Professor of Chemistry and appointed as the first chair of the Lawrence Hall of Science (which he cofounded) in 1984. A champion of science education, Seaborg was a member of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced the 1983 landmark report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. He was a primary mover for the Internet resource for science teachers, "Great Exploration in Math and Science."

Seaborg was an advocate for nuclear arms control, international cooperation in science, and conservation of natural resources. He wrote more than five hundred scientific articles, including comprehensive reviews, compilations, and books, including his autobiography, A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War (1988). He held more than forty patents, including the only patents issued for chemical elements, americium and curium. His honors included the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry (1947), Perkin Medal of the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry (1957), AEC Enrico Fermi Award for outstanding work in the field of nuclear chemistry and for his leadership in scientific and educational affairs (1959), Franklin Medal (1963), and National Medal of Science (1991). He also received more than fifty honorary degrees.

A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1972) and the American Chemical Society (1976), Seaborg was also a fellow of the American Institute of Chemists, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Physical Society, among others. Seaborg remained an active figure in the science and education fields until his death at age eighty-six from complications of a stroke. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory named its IBM supercomputer Seaborg in his honor in August 1999.

Seaborg made significant contributions to the field of chemistry and to science education throughout his career. In particular in the 1960s, he worked to improve the quality of science teaching, interest young people in science careers, promote greater scientific literacy, and encourage scientists' understanding of social problems.

Seaborg's diaries are held by the University of California, Los Angeles Library, Department of Special Collections. Documents pertaining to the period when he was the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, are in the University Archives of the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. In addition to Seaborg's autobiography, A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War (1988), see also his The Transuranium Elements (1958), Education and the Atom (1964), Man and Atom (1971), and Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (1981). H. Peter Metzger, The Atomic Establishment (1972), discusses Seaborg's leadership of the AEC; see also Rae Goodall, The Visible Scientists (1977). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 27 Feb. 1999).

Maria Pacheco