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Chemistry lab in high school was a very long two periods. Since a watched beaker never boils, my friends and I used to cause quite a ruckus. To keep us at bay, our teacher would engage us in conversation about scientific topics. One of these parlays centered around the elements, specifically, the nature of their names.

We spent a few classes guessing where their names and symbols came from. Our collective foreign-language skills helped us with many. Lead's symbol, Pb, comes from the Latin plumbum, and iron's symbol, Fe, comes from the Latin ferrum. Some of the elements' names come from countries: Francium and germanium are two salient examples. The name origins became harder further into the periodic table.

That's when I saw it, sitting in the actinide row, just waiting to be scrutinized. There was lawrencium, a.k.a. "Lr," radioactive element 103. With the water in our beakers coming to a boil, my labmates and I quickly, and dismissively, assigned its origins to a guy named Larry. We conjectured that he wanted to use his formal name--Lawrence--for the elemental christening; this was a formal circumstance, we reasoned.

That led us to wonder who this mysterious Larry was. After the lab experiment, our pondering resumed, albeit briefly. "Who's this Larry fellow, and why does he get an element named after him?" we grumbled. Kudos to Larry, we concluded, for having an element named after himself.

Fast-forward a few years and insert a lightbulb over my head. I was reading about the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and there was that name again, Lawrence. A few fact-checking minutes later, I learned that lawrencium was not named after the man who discovered (or more accurately, created) it, but as a tribute to a man, Ernest O. Lawrence, who lived from 1901 to 1958. Still, what made him so special? Actually, quite a lot.

Lawrencium's eponym was a giant among scientists. His most notable contribution is the invention of the cyclotron, but his mark on chemistry goes much further than that. Before enumerating Lawrence's many accomplishments, it is worth noting that lawrencium was created in 1961 by Albert Ghiorso, Torbjørn Sikkeland, Almon E. Larsh, and Robert M. Latimer at the University of California, Berkeley. They bombarded 3 μg of Cf-251 with B-11 to produce Lr-257, which has a half-life of about eight seconds. The researchers were able to detect the new element, and they even managed a few preliminary studies of the oxidative behavior of the evanescent lawrencium. Their alacrity was astonishing to me, in light of the slower than snail's pace of how my research seemed to go in graduate school.

Lawrence invented the cyclotron in 1929, while he was a professor at Berkeley. The cyclotron is a circular particle accelerator capable of boosting charged particles' speed to much greater levels than those achieved by the contemporary linear accelerators--speeds high enough to cause nuclear disintegration. The cyclotron provided continuous pushes via an electromagnetic field, thus obviating the need for high voltages required in the linear machines. For this invention, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939.

Lawrence also pioneered the use of radiation for medicinal applications, including combating cancer and treating hyperthyroidism. He also helped in the isolation of uranium-235, which was used to create the atomic bomb. His cyclotron laid the groundwork for the synchrocyclotron and superconducting supercollider, the next generation of particle accelerators.

There is no question that the cyclotron helped usher chemistry into the nuclear arena. Not only were new elements created, but hundreds of radioactive isotopes of the known elements were also discovered. Even so, perhaps Lawrence's most lasting contribution was not his invention, but his methodology.

As Luis W. Alvarez, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics, said, "Lawrence will always be remembered as the inventor of the cyclotron, but more importantly, he should be remembered as the inventor of the modern way of doing science." He revolutionized team research on a large scale. His construction of the cyclotron was a harbinger of a new way of doing research. He fused the ostensibly diametrically opposed units of fundamental research and practical engineering into a seamless whole. His motives for promoting scientific achievement were selfless: Even though he patented the cyclotron, he rejected royalties and helped other labs to build their own cyclotrons, believing that "patent consciousness" would serve as a padlock on the doors of progress.

Although fleeting, lawrencium reminds us of the endless and noble achievements of chemists and fellow researchers. While it may not have the easy recognition of oxygen or carbon, or the cachet of gold or platinum, lawrencium's history and status are beyond question. Larry would agree

Stephen M. Trzaska, like Lawrence before him, is an avid ice skater. Trzaska received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke University and is an associate editor in C&EN's Editing & Production Group.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Name: Named for Ernest O. Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron.
Atomic mass: (262).
History: First synthesized in 1961 by Albert Ghiorso, Torbjørn Sikkeland, Almon E. Larsh, and Robert M. Latimer in Berkeley, California
Occurrence: Artificially produced.
Appearance: Solid metal of unknown color.
Behavior: Highly radioactive.
Uses: No commercial uses.

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