Glenn T. Seaborg


Glenn T. Seaborg : biography

19 April 1912 – 25 February 1999
University of California, Berkeley, physicist Edwin McMillan led a team that discovered element 93, which he named neptunium in 1940. In November, he was persuaded to leave Berkeley temporarily to assist with urgent research in radar technology. Since Seaborg and his colleagues had perfected McMillan's oxidation-reduction technique for isolating neptunium, he asked McMillan for permission to continue the research and search for element 94. McMillan agreed to the collaboration. Seaborg first reported alpha decay proportionate to only a fraction of the element 93 under observation. The first hypothesis for this alpha particle accumulation was contamination by uranium, which produces alpha-decay particles; analysis of alpha-decay particles ruled this out. Seaborg then postulated that a distinct alpha-producing element was being formed from element 93. 

In February 1941, Seaborg and his collaborators produced plutonium-239 through the bombardment of uranium. This experimental achievement changed the course of human history in ways more profound than they could have ever imagined: the production of plutonium-239 was successful. In their experiments bombarding uranium with deuterons, they observed the creation of neptunium, element 93. But it then underwent beta-decay, forming a new element, plutonium, with 94 protons. Plutonium is fairly stable, but undergoes alpha-decay, which explained the presence of alpha particles coming from neptunium.

 Thus, on March 28, 1941, Seaborg, physicist Emilio Segrè and Berkeley chemist Joseph W. Kennedy were able to show that plutonium (then known only as element 94) was fissile, an important distinction that was crucial to the decisions made in directing Manhattan Project research. In 1966, Room 307 of Gilman Hall on the campus at the Berkeley, where Seaborg did his work, was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark. 

In addition to plutonium, he is credited as a lead discoverer of americium, curium, and berkelium, and as a co-discoverer of californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and seaborgium. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 with Edwin McMillan for "their discoveries in the chemistry of the first transuranium elements."

Honors and awards

During his lifetime, Seaborg is said to have been the author or co-author of more than 50 books and 500 scientific journal articles, many of them brief reports on fast-breaking discoveries in nuclear science while other subjects, most notably the actinide concept, represented major theoretical contributions in the history of science. He held more than 40 patents – among them the only patents ever issued for chemical elements, americium and curium. He is also said to have received more than 50 degrees and honorary degrees in his lifetime. At one time, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the longest entry in Marquis Who’s Who in America. In February 2005, he was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His papers are in the Library of Congress.

The element seaborgium was named after Seaborg by Albert Ghiorso, E. Kenneth Hulet, and others, who also credited Seaborg as a co-discoverer. It was named while Seaborg was still alive, which proved controversial. He influenced the naming of so many elements that with the announcement of seaborgium, it was noted in Discover magazine’s review of the year in science that he could receive a letter addressed in chemical elements: seaborgium, lawrencium (for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory where he worked), berkelium, californium, americium.

While it has been commonly stated that seaborgium is the only element to have been named after a living person, but this is not entirely accurate, for both einsteinium and fermium were proposed as names of new elements discovered by Ghiorso while Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein were still living. However, the discovery of these elements and their names were kept secret under Cold War-era nuclear secrecy rules, so the names were not known by the public or the broader scientific community until after their deaths. Thus seaborgium is the only element to have been publicly named after a living person.