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What's in a name?

In the case of seaborgium, the story goes back to World War II. My father, Glenn T. Seaborg, was a 30-year-old chemist who'd had the good fortune to discover a secret element that would become known as plutonium. He'd taken a leave of absence from the University of California to work at the code-named Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The mission: to develop a process to isolate plutonium so it could be used in a theoretical weapon, the atomic bomb.

He was scrambling to assemble a staff when a letter arrived asking him for a recommendation for the Navy. The correspondent, Albert Ghiorso, repaired the Geiger counters at Berkeley's Radiation Laboratory. He was a nodding acquaintance of my father's, but my mother knew him well--he'd married one of her best friends. "Al is much too independent; he wouldn't last a day in the Navy," she told my father. "You should offer him a job here."

My father invited Ghiorso to Chicago, unable to reveal the nature of their project, except to say that it was important. Ghiorso agreed to come on the condition that his work wouldn't involve wiring circuits, which was what he was trying to get away from. He was promptly put to work wiring circuits.

NAMESAKE Glenn T. Seaborg points to the element named in honor of him.
Seaborg had many strengths, but skill in electronics was not among them. As a grad student in an era when you had to build your own equipment, he'd spent months struggling to construct an acceptable Geiger counter, confiding to his diary, "Electronics is a field more akin to witchcraft than to science." Well, how better to master witchcraft than to bring in a "wizard?" And my father applied this moniker to Ghiorso on more than one occasion. Thanks to Ghiorso and a partner, the Seaborg group's electronic equipment was the envy of the Met Lab.

And the group succeeded. Not only did they design the separation process for plutonium, but based on Seaborg's proposed actinide concept for reorganizing the periodic table, they discovered a pair of new elements for good measure.

Seaborg was offered the chance to head his own research group back at Berkeley and invited the best of his Chicago colleagues along, Ghiorso among them. The post-World War II years were something of a golden age in nuclear science, and this group was preeminent in nuclear chemistry, stretching the periodic table out with six more elements, all the way to 102.

Seaborg spent the 1960s out of research, chairing the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Berkeley in 1971, Ghiorso was kind enough to let him rejoin what was now Ghiorso's research group. And they continued to extend the periodic table.

At some point while I was in college, my father mentioned that they thought they'd discovered a new element. "That's nice," I said, glad that the old man was still finding ways to make himself useful.

It took another 20 years, however, for the discovery to be confirmed and for the group to be given the credit and the right to name it. With eight scientists involved in the discovery suggesting so many good possibilities, Ghiorso despaired of reaching consensus, until he awoke one night with an idea. He approached the team members one by one, until seven of them had agreed. He then told his friend and colleague of 50 years: "We have seven votes in favor of naming element 106 seaborgium. Will you give your consent?" My father was flabbergasted, and, after consulting my mother, agreed.

He was blindsided, and a little hurt, by the controversy the proposal engendered. Naming an element for a living person was not quite as radical as some said--he and his team had proposed the names einsteinium and fermium while those eminent scientists were still alive. And frankly, he didn't quite see how dying would make him that much of a better person. On the other hand, he was enormously touched by the outpouring of support that the proposal received from rank-and-file chemists.

Seaborg received a Nobel Prize and countless other honors--including a listing in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the longest biography in "Who's Who"--but he said without doubt this was the biggest honor he'd ever received. Because it will last as long as there are periodic tables.

Eric Seaborg is a freelance writer who collaborated on his father's autobiography, "Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001). An excerpt may be read at http://www.seaborg.net.

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Name: Named after nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg.
Atomic mass: (266).
History: First created by a team of scientists led by Albert Ghiorso at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1974; the team included Glenn T. Seaborg. Three months prior to the Ghiorso announcement, members of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, had reported they had synthesized element 106. However, the Berkeley group's work was confirmed in 1993, and they were credited with the discovery.
Occurrence: Does not occur naturally. Only a few atoms have ever been
Appearance: Presumably solid; unknown color.
Behavior: Unknown. Would be radiotoxic if produced in quantity.
Uses: None.

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