CURIUM

WILLIAM G. SCHULZ, C&EN WASHINGTON

CURIUM AT A GLANCE
Name: Named for scientists Marie and Pierre Curie.
Atomic mass: (247).
History: Discovered in 1944 by Glenn T. Seaborg, Ralph A. James, and Albert Ghiorso using a cyclotron. Chemical identification of curium took place during WWII at Argonne National Laboratory.
Occurrence: Does not occur naturally. It can be made in nuclear reactors from plutonium.
Appearance: Silvery white, solid metal. Most curium compounds are faintly yellow.
Behavior: Very radioactive. Curium can build up in bones, where its radiation disrupts red-cell formation.

Uses: Because of its long half-life, curium-242 can be safely used as energy for pacemakers, remote navigational buoys, and space missions.

Curium, element 96, was discovered and patented by Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg. It is one of only two elements on the periodic table that have ever been patented, the other being americium, which Seaborg also discovered.

There are not many practical applications for curium. Seaborg did, however, use it to honor his scientific forebears, Pierre and Marie Curie. Like Seaborg, they had devoted their lives to science. Their investigations of radioactivity, as well as discovery of the elements polonium and radium, set the stage for his groundbreaking work to find other transuranium elements, most notably, perhaps, plutonium.

I met Seaborg about two and a half years before his death on Feb. 25, 1999. I had arranged to interview him for a profile to be published in C&EN's 75th anniversary issue.

I must confess, I proposed writing the profile before I knew much about Seaborg and his work on the Manhattan Project. I gathered some reading materials in preparation for my meeting with him, but, on the whole, I was underprepared.

The day I arrived in Berkeley, Calif., for the interview, it seemed to me unseasonably hot. My little hotel room was stuffy and not air-conditioned. There was a window for ventilation, but mostly it let in the late-afternoon sun, aggravating my discomfort.

I didn't know anybody in Berkeley, and I was wiped out by the long flight from Washington, D.C. It was too early for dinner, so I lit a cigarette and decided to review my notes and other materials in preparation for the interview the next day.

I soon felt overwhelmed by the task ahead. In reading, I learned, for example, that Seaborg's concept of an actinide series, which includes most of the transuranium elements, constituted the most fundamental revision of the periodic table since Mendeleyev.

What's more, Seaborg's work in discovering elements gave rise to nuclear energy, nuclear medicine, and, of course, nuclear warfare. He was a principal in the development of the atomic bomb, and he later promoted peaceful uses of the atom--especially for medicine and energy.

For nearly seven decades, Seaborg maintained an active scientific career, mostly from his office and laboratory suite at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and nearby University of California, Berkeley. He was an adviser to several U.S. presidents, the first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and a tireless advocate for science education. At the time of my interview with him, an international nomenclature committee had just named element 106 seaborgium in his honor.

TOP SECRET The government classified much of the early research on transuranium elements. Shown here is a paper on curium declassified in 1948.
COURTESY OF DOE
My mind reeled. How could I possibly focus an interview with a man who had achieved so much? Trying to develop a new spin or angle, I could see, would quickly become an exercise in frustration.

What could I ask Seaborg that he had not been asked a hundred times? What portion of his long and distinguished career should be included, and which left out? Should I ask about his private life? His political viewpoints?

The more I read from my research materials, the more I began to feel disheartened. How could one person possibly have accomplished so much in a lifetime?

When I met Seaborg the next day, my mood brightened. As many other people have noted, he was an all-around nice guy--approachable, friendly, witty. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend a few hours in his company. But I was still vexed by what to write.

I kept all of my materials from the interview, including a brown accordion folder that Seaborg had stuffed full with various articles and interviews about his life and work. He put a label on the folder with my name on it and the date, Oct. 24, 1997. The materials were a tremendous help, and they have a permanent place in my files.

Of all that has been written about Seaborg, there was one aspect of his character that especially registered with me that day: His incredible humility. I could not get a handle on all that this great man had achieved in life--I still cannot. But it didn't seem that any of Seaborg's considerable accomplishments, fame, and stature had ever eclipsed his basic nature. He was forever down to earth and open to learning. Every account of him that I have heard from other people confirms my impression. He didn't exhibit a speck of pretense. His focus was always on the next horizon.

I saw Seaborg once or twice after that meeting. His energy never seemed to flag. I realize today that I left my interview with him carrying away far more valuable information than I had at first realized.


William G. Schulz is C&EN's news editor and is responsible for the News of the Week department. He also covers government and policy issues for C&EN.

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