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Monday, July 11, 2005

Al Ghiorso's Long and Happy Life

With a round dozen elements to his credit, more even than his great friend, mentor, and colleague Glenn Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso holds the world record for the discovery of transuranium elements -- and possibly for elements of any kind. It's an astonishing achievement for someone who found his true calling almost by accident.

Al Ghiorso was born in Vallejo, California, and grew up in Alameda. His father had come to the U.S. with his family from Genoa, Italy, at the age of two, growing up to become a ranch hand, riveter, welder, and general jack-of-all-trades -- and, not coincidentally, a strong union supporter and political radical, who urged his son to become an "honest" lawyer. But the younger Ghiorso had too much fun fixing and building gadgets, so with the help of a scholarship -- to cover the $26 annual fee -- he got a degree in electronic engineering from UC Berkeley in 1937.

It was the depths of the Great Depression and the only work Ghiorso could find was doing odd jobs for short-wave radio and electronics enthusiasts. In 1941 he was hired to install an intercom system to connect the secretarial desks at UC Berkeley's Radiation Laboratory. He did a good job, so he was asked to wire some Geiger counters.

"I was not told that it would be necessary to build hundreds of these devices for Professor Glenn T. Seaborg's group," Ghiorso later recalled. By way of consolation, when the U.S. entered World War II not long afterward, he married one of the Rad Lab secretaries whose desk he had wired, Donald Cooksey's assistant, Wilma Belt.

When Seaborg went to Chicago to organize the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory he asked Ghiorso to join him there, instead of enlisting in the Navy. Ghiorso barely knew Seaborg, but he agreed on condition that he wouldn't have to build any more Geiger counters.

Seaborg kept his word. In the spare moments left over after he'd spent the day maintaining the existing Met Lab equipment, Ghiorso began inventing new instruments for detecting nuclear radiations, the first step in his long, element-finding career.

For reasons having to do with available energies and experimental methods, most of these elements were discovered in pairs. Ghiorso's first trophies, while still at Chicago's Met Lab, were elements 95 and 96 (americium and curium) in 1944-45. These were followed, back at the Rad Lab in Berkeley in 1949, by the discovery of elements 97 and 98 (berkelium and californium). In late 1952 elements 99 and 100 (einsteinium and fermium) were found in debris brought back from the first H-bomb test in the Pacific.

Element 101 (mendelevium) was a loner, the first element to be identified from individual atoms -- a mere 17 atoms, created in the 60-inch cyclotron. Many discoveries since have been based on even fewer atoms.    

Competition and controversy have been part of the element quest from the beginning, and Al Ghiorso has never ducked a vigorous discussion about who discovered what when. He was a leader in the fight to have element 106 named seaborgium after Glenn Seaborg, but when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry finally conceded and allowed an element to be named after a living person, they compromised by giving element 105, claimed by both Berkeley Lab and Dubna, the name dubnium. Today most of the rest of the world calls it that, but the name hahnium is still heard in Berkeley.

Many of the machines and detectors used in the search for heavy elements, including some of the most important accelerators built at Berkeley Lab over a period of three decades, were invented or influenced in their design by Al Ghiorso, including the HILAC, SuperHILAC, and BevaLAC. Ghiorso's finest invention, the Omnitron, was never realized, however. "Unfortunately, the accelerator was never built because it came into competition with the terrible holocaust war in Vietnam, where the U.S. was spending the equivalent of three Omnitrons per day to devastate the country!"

Ghiorso's life was never limited to heavy elements and heavier machinery. He credits his wife, Wilma, with sparking his interest in music, art, and opera. They began collecting paintings in 1951 and before long Ghiorso was picking up his own camel's hair brush. Many of his powerful semi-abstract paintings are to be seen on the walls of Bldg 71.

His interest in other people has been even stronger. Mike Nitschke, a highly respected experimentalist who died of AIDS in 1995, was one of Ghiorso's colleagues from 1966 until his death. Ghiorso established a memorial fund in Nitschke's name that sponsors annual awards for technical excellence at Berkeley Lab.

Although Ghiorso officially retired some time back in the 1980s, nobody seems to have noticed -- least of all Al Ghiorso.

Paul Preuss


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