Chemical & Engineering News
January 12, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by the American Chemical Society

C&EN's Top
75 Profile

Glenn Seaborg: A Towering Figure In Chemistry

Editors Note: Glenn T. Seaborg is a legendary name in chemistry today-so well-known and well-beloved, in fact, that C&EN readers gave him the third-highest number of votes in the balloting process that nominated "C&EN's Top 75 Distinguished Contributors to the Chemical Enterprise." Only Linus Pauling and Robert B. Woodward received more votes.

William Schulz
C&EN, Washington

There is a welcoming sort of clutter in the office of Glenn T. Seaborg- organized piles of books and papers, hundreds of photographs, a stepladder, various desk lamps, and, not surprisingly, several different displays of the periodic table of the elements. He is a busy man still engaged with a career in chemistry and physics that-so far- spans an incredible six decades.

One of his displays of the periodic table-etched onto a glass plate-is an award that highlights in gold leaf the symbol for seaborgium, element 106. It is a potent reminder of Seaborg's legacy in the chemical sciences. In addition to being the discoverer of plutonium, he is the only chemist to hold patents on chemical elements (americium, curium). His revision of the periodic table-the actinide concept-still stands as the most significant since Mendeleyev's 19th-century design. Today, his research associates at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., are engaged in the search for new isotopes and new elements at the upper end of the periodic table, including the so-called superheavy elements.

Seaborg likes to joke that the controversy surrounding the naming of element 106 mostly had to do with the fact that, at 85 years old, he is still very much alive. At the least, it is Seaborg's way of making sense of the spasm of political correctness that nearly derailed the international process of naming new elements and that nearly denied him and other pioneers of nuclear chemistry honors they deserved.

But the joke is also a display of the humility and somewhat self-deprecating sense of humor characteristic of this Nobel Laureate. In a few words, he signals that he has cast aside any resentment he may have felt about those events. Scorn he could righteously deliver is vanquished with a good-natured referendum on his robust health and longevity.

Reviewing Seaborg's lifetime of achievement in chemistry, government service, and academe, such largess might seem a learned diplomatic skill. But getting to know him through his numerous books, articles, speeches, and interviews, it seems that, for Seaborg, a certain humility has always been his approach to science and the power of scientific truth and discovery.

Glenn Seaborg

"Gosh, they picked me?" is his genuine response when informed that readers of Chemical & Engineering News voted him among the top three chemists of the past 75 years. Considering his lifetime of accomplishments-which in addition to his scientific discoveries include chancellorship of the University of California, Berkeley (1958-61); chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; and president of the American Chemical Society (1976), to name just a few-the vote is not at all surprising. The consummate scholar, Seaborg is honored by this consensus of his peers.

Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born on April 19, 1912, in Ishpeming, Mich., a small iron-mining town on the upper peninsula. It was his father's birthplace and the town to which his Swedish mother had immigrated in 1904. Seaborg recalls learning first to speak and understand Swedish, although he says his facility with the language has since declined.

But Seaborg has never lost touch with his Swedish roots. He lists among his major awards the Great Swedish Heritage Award from the Swedish Council of America and the John Ericsson Gold Medal from the American Society of Swedish Engineers. Among his many friends, he counts another Swedish American-dancer and actress Ann-Margret.

At his mother's urging, when Seaborg was 10 years old, the family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Home Gardens (now South Gate). The requirement to take a laboratory science in his junior year of high school, Seaborg says, kindled his interest in science, particularly chemistry.

That course was taught by Dwight L. Reid, who "not only taught chemistry, he preached it." In his senior year, Seaborg studied physics with Reid and "since then my interests in physics and chemistry have been inseparable." There were many other teachers who further inspired Seaborg.

And Seaborg has long been outspoken about science education and the need for more teachers with Reid's passion. Seaborg served on the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which published its famous report, "A Nation at Risk," in 1983. More recently, Seaborg and several other Nobel Laureates produced a report for the state of California that criticized an emphasis on pedagogy over scientific training for teachers.

In 1929, he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in chemistry and took the maximum number of courses possible in physics.

Having distinguished himself as an undergraduate, Seaborg was quickly accepted to the highly competitive graduate program in chemistry at UC Berkeley. "It is difficult to describe the exciting, glamorous atmosphere that existed at Berkeley when I entered as a graduate student in 1934," he says. Along with the legendary Gilbert N. Lewis-"the Chief"-as dean of the college of chemistry and chemical engineering, his instructors included such eminent chemists as Axel R. Olson and William F. Giauque. In physics, he particularly recalls the Physics Journal Club where he mixed with the likes of Ernest O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Luis W. Alvarez.

Gilman Hall at UC Berkeley during the Lewis era is writ large in the history of chemistry. And so it is in Seaborg's life as well. After receiving his Ph.D. degree in chemistry, he worked there for two years as Lewis' personal research assistant. After joining the faculty as an instructor, he began a collaboration with physicist John J. (Jack) Livingood in which Seaborg chemically identified radioisotopes produced by material Livingood bombarded with deuterons and neutrons. Over the course of five years, they discovered a number of radioisotopes, including iodine-131, iron-59, and cobalt-60.

Although Seaborg's interest in transuranium elements had been piqued by the work of Enrico Fermi and his group in Italy, starting in 1934, Seaborg credits his work with Livingood as cementing the idea that the field would become his life's work. In 1940, element 93-neptunium, the first transuranium element-was identified by colleagues Edwin M. McMillan and Philip H. Abelson.

McMillan was then called away to the East Coast for research related to the war effort. With McMillan's permission, Seaborg and his group went about creating and chemically identifying the next transuranium element, number 94-plutonium. Four years later, he published his concept of the actinide series, and in 1951 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Soon after the discovery of plutonium, Seaborg and several of his colleagues were also called into the war effort, namely the supersecret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. His work for the U.S. government began at UC Berkeley, although he would move in 1942 to the University of Chicago, where he directed the work on the chemical processes for the production of plutonium for use in an atomic weapon.

After a little less than two months in Chicago, Seaborg returned briefly to Berkeley where he was reunited with Ernest Lawrence's secretary, Helen L. Griggs, whom he had been dating. "We had a hell of a time getting married," Seaborg says of the frantic pace of life during the war years, but the young couple managed to tie the knot in Pioche, Nev., on June 6, 1942, en route back to Chicago. Today, they are often together during Seaborg's many public appearances.

As he has been since the Manhattan Project became public knowledge, Seaborg is outspoken about the use of atomic power, especially its beneficial uses. For him and other scientists, the Manhattan Project proceeded because of a very real threat: "We thought we were in a race with Hitler and his scientists. We thought Germany would beat us to the atomic bomb," he says emphatically.

With the end of the war in Europe, however, Seaborg became a signer of the 1945 Franck Report-named for James Franck, chairman of the committee that produced it-which recommended a demonstration of the atomic bomb with hopes that this act would persuade Japan to surrender. "We're not sure this report ever reached President Truman," Seaborg says. But he adds, "The bomb did end the war abruptly, and it saved thousands of lives on both sides."

After World War II, Seaborg returned to UC Berkeley and continued his research, including discovery of nine more transuranium elements. Seaborg also became committed to promoting science and a scientifically literate society, curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and calling for openness in government in the handling of scientific information. He set ambitious goals that have often met with success, though perhaps not always on Seaborg's preferred timetable.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy tapped Seaborg to become chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)-a position he would be reappointed to for the next 10 years. He advocated a complete test ban treaty on atomic weapons under Kennedy, for whom he had traveled to Moscow for negotiations with the Soviet Union. Those talks resulted in a partial test ban. He has written three books about his service with AEC, an insider's account of the Cold War.

In an odd twist of fate, Seaborg-with perhaps unprecedented experience in government secrecy-has had to sound a call for reason in the process of classifying scientific information. In the early 1980s, the Department of Energy "borrowed" his daily journal from his decade of service with AEC, purportedly to write a history of the commission.

Although the journal had passed secrecy checks at the time of his departure from the agency in 1971, DOE saw fit to reclassify major portions of it and has never returned the original. Finally, last year, Seaborg was supported by Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who in September 1997 introduced a bill, S. 1232, to try to get the uncensored version returned to Seaborg. "I think it's about the worst thing that's ever happened to me," he says.

Despite that experience-or perhaps because of it-Seaborg advocates scientists taking a more active role in the political process. His most recent book, "A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War" (ACS Books, 1998), is his own account of his government service and a testament to the positive influence scientists can exert on public policy.

In his unassuming office in building 70A of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Seaborg continues his life's work. "He never misses a day," his administrator confides. Along with improved science education and public support of science, Seaborg hopes to see more international cooperation among scientists in the decades to come. His outlook for chemistry is particularly bright, agreeing with many that the discipline is poised to make great contributions at the interfaces with biology and other disciplines. Seaborg's own contributions-to science, government, and academe-will surely have great impact for generations to come.