23 February 1941: A New Element Is Discovered

It was on the uncharacteristically stormy evening of 23 February 1941 that the world dramatically changed in a rather undramatic way, as often happens. In room 307 Gilman Hall on the University of California, Berkeley Campus, a team of researchers chemically identified element 94. The element had been produced the previous December in the powerful 60″ cyclotron at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. Because the quantity produced in the cyclotron was extremely minute, the chemical identification took great precision and unusual expertise. Fortunately, the head of this team, Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, was both an outstanding physicist and an exceptional chemist.

The unusual properties of element 94 were immediately recognized as having crucial impact as material for a possible atomic bomb, and so this landmark discovery was kept secret for reasons of national security. Because element 92, which was identified in 1798, had been named for the planet Uranus, the first of the synthetic transuranium elements discovered at Berkeley, element 93, had been named Neptunium, after the planet Neptune. In accordance with this scheme, the new element would be named Plutonium, for the planet Pluto. There is a fitting irony to this naming, because in Roman mythology, Pluto was the god of the underworld and death. Dr. Seaborg later said that he honestly had no idea of this connotation when he selected the name, yet he recognized that his discovery had indeed been an agent of death and destruction, and understood that the name was apt in that way.

Plutonium, identified by science writer Jeremey Bernstein as “The world’s most dangerous element,” has many unusual properties, but it is its use as the trigger for nuclear reactions which gives it the profound impact it has upon the world of today. One of the most remarkable achievements of science and technology was to develop Plutonium from a laboratory curiosity which was measured in tiny fractions of a gram to making it by the ton with the span of less than four years, and Professor Seaborg was key throughout this process.

Doctor Seaborg understood the implications of his discovery immediately, and though he himself opposed warfare as a solution to disagreements among nations, he nevertheless was keenly aware that both Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Imperial Japan were working feverishly to develop atomic weaponry. Dr. Seaborg once remarked that he “hated the thought of making an atomic bomb,” but he even more “hated the thought of Hitler getting it first.” And in 1945, Dr. Seaborg took a clear stand against use of nuclear weapons as a signatory to the then-secret Franck Report in which many prominent nuclear scientists urged the United States government not to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Doctor Seaborg was convinced that the future of atomic power was in peaceful applications.

After World War II ended, Doctor Seaborg resumed his academic career as a professor of chemistry at Berkeley. Wartime security concerns delayed publication of his discovery (and his many other wartime contributions) so it would not be until 1951 that Dr. Seaborg would receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work. Professor Seaborg was a modern “Renaissance Man” in every way; in addition to his contributions to the physics of transuranium elements (he was discoverer or co-discoverer of ten of them!) he reorganized the periodic table of the elements to rationally accommodate elements that did not “fit” in the traditional scheme (which in and of itself was a contribution that would have earned him a Nobel Prize!) Despite these towering accomplishments, Dr. Seaborg was no “Ivory Tower” scientist: he served for many years as the Berkeley Campus representative to the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference and was instrumental in reorganizing to build what is now the PAC-12; he served as the second chancellor of the Berkeley Campus until he was tapped by president-elect John F. Kennedy to take lead of the Atomic Energy Commission. He held the AEC post he held for 11 years under three presidents.

After stepping down as chair of the AEC, Professor Seaborg returned to his academic life in Berkeley and continued to advise presidents in many subjects outside the scope of atomic energy. Because he himself had been a beneficiary of the unparalleled opportunities provided by public education in California, Dr. Seaborg was a firm advocate for quality education and advised every president from Truman to Clinton on educational matters. In 1983, he created the report on education in the United States for the Reagan administration which he bluntly entitled A Nation At Risk. On campus, while he continued his advanced research, he also devoted his time end energy to teaching both graduate students and undergraduates. He took his role as teacher to be of profound importance, and remained actively engaged with students on campus throughout his career. (During my time at Berkeley, Professor Seaborg was undergraduate advisor to my classmate Scott Dreisbach!) Professor Seaborg was involved in many campus organizations, and remained an ardent fan of Cal athletics until the end of his life (he was fond of noting that his name, “Seaborg” is an anagram of “Go Bears!”)

Because Professor Seaborg was fully involved in campus life, I had the privilege and pleasure of dining with him on two different occasions. He was equally comfortable talking about college basketball standings or “wet” chemistry, and though he had been an intimate of presidents and the powerful, he clearly loved talking with undergraduates and “ordinary folk” as well. To this day, I find that an impressive thing.

As for his role as the discoverer of plutonium, Dr. Seaborg said that he was never troubled by it. “It is an element. It was going to be discovered,” he observed. “It’s a good thing for humanity that the United States was the first to develop the bomb.” But he did recognize his responsibility to strive to see that atomic energy would be used wisely. He worked tirelessly for nuclear arms control from 1945 until he suffered a stroke that would prove to be fatal in 1998. And the many contributions he made to nuclear medicine are saving lives to this day.

It is a light and interesting note that, after element 106 was officially named “Seaborgium” in his honor, Glenn Seaborg may have been the only person whose address could be written by using elements of the Periodic Table:

Sg (106)
Lr (103)
Bk (97), Cf (98)
Am (95)

That is:

(Glenn) Seaborg
Lawrence (Laboratory)
Berkeley, California
(United States of) America

In this small space, I cannot do justice to Glenn Seaborg’s astounding achievements and fascinating character. But I can remind us that “minor,” exotic developments in a small lab somewhere can, occasionally, change everything.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

A hardworking individual will succeed where a lazy genius will fail.

— Glenn T. Seaborg


Transuranium elements:

Uranium: War, Energy, And The Rock That Shaped The World, Tom Zoellner; Viking, 2009: ISBN: 9780670020645

This highly readable account traces the technological, economic, and social impact of uranium from the Middle Ages, when it was only known as a component of other minerals with unusual properties, to the modern age of geopolitics.

Plutonium: A History Of The World’s Most Dangerous Element, Jeremy Bernstein; Joseph Henry Press, 2007: ISBN: 9780309102964

Inspired by allegations that Nazi scientists had actually created a nuclear explosion during WWII, Jeremy Bernstein began the research that led to this book. Covering the history of plutonium from a scientific curiosity to an international political and environmental crisis, Plutonium is well written and engaging. It is intended for a scientific audience, but it does not require a degree in chemistry or physics to appreciate and benefit from reading.

Elements at war:

The Manhattan Project, Cynthia C. Kelly, ed.; Black Dog and Leventhal, 2007: ISBN: 9781579127473

A compendium of original accounts, reports, and paper related to the development of the atomic bomb.

Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb, Richard Rhodes; Simon & Schuster, 1995: ISBN: 9780684804002

This fascinating follow-up to Rhode’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, is an exciting account of espionage, cold war politics, and technology in the race to develop the “ultimate weapon.” Drawing upon Soviet-era resources that had previously been unavailable in the West, Rhodes’ account is probably the best and most complete one-volume work on this topic.

Glenn T. Seaborg:

Adventures In The Atomic Age, Glenn T. Seabrg; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001: ISBN: 0374299919

This autobiography is simply wonderful reading. Seaborg has a simple, uncomplicated prose style and relates utterly fascinating tales of his long and fruitful life from his boyhood until near the end of his life. It is interesting to note that his favorite honor was having element 106 officially named Seaborgium!

The Transuranium People, Hoffman, Ghioroso, and Seaborg; Imperial College Press, 2000: ISBN: 1860940870

This rare but fascinating work is a combination of biography and laboratory history of some of the most cutting edge science of the past 70 years. While written for a technical audience, it is intended to be accessible for more general readers as well. My copy is signed by several of the principals, but Dr. Seaborg passed away before it was published, so his is not among them.

There Was Light: Alumni Essays, Irving & Jean Stone, eds; Berkeley, 1996: Library of Congress catalog: 77-78738

Seaborg’s essay in this collection is as good a brief autobiography as you will ever find on the man.

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