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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bomb pioneer pushed peace

Plutonium discoverer saw deterrent

By Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer

Glenn Seaborg helped create the most destructive man-made force ever known, then spent a lifetime advocating its peaceful applications.

He was a 28-year-old chemist when he isolated plutonium -- the element that makes atomic bombs explode.

Seaborg's find launched him on such a remarkable scientific and political odyssey, he would come to be recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest entry in Who's Who in America.

Not bad for a boy who was so shy his mother arranged for teachers to allow trips to the bathroom because he was too bashful to raise his hand.

Seaborg was born in 1912 in the isolated iron town of Ishpeming, Mich., ending up in southern California when his father went searching for work during the Great Depression.

He loved physics, but knew chemists had an easier time paying the bills, so that's the direction he chose entering UCLA.

For his graduate degree, he turned to the scientific mecca of Berkeley, where Seaborg met several men considered legends in their fields.

By day, he assisted them in their experiments. But at night he was free to explore his own interest: the mysteries of the atom.

Seaborg's partnerships gave him access to the coveted cyclotron, a particle accelerator that was a primary tool in the fledgling field of nuclear science.

``I hardly noticed that the work was exacting and demanding, because I couldn't believe that I was being paid to do what I would have chosen as a hobby,'' the late Seaborg said. ``It was exciting just to walk into the lab, full of anticipation that that day I might be the first human being ever to see some unimaginable new creation.''

Seaborg learned to synthesize iodine-131, a radioisotope used for diagnosing and treating many diseases, and one that he credits with prolonging his own mother's life.

Then in 1941, Seaborg led the research team that came across plutonium -- a discovery they delayed announcing as they grappled with the inconceivable danger this man-made element possessed. One kilogram of plutonium can produce an explosion equal to 20,000 tons of chemical explosive.

Within months, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, America entered World War II and Seaborg was on a train headed to participate in the top-secret Manhattan Project. He wasn't even 30 yet.

``My section's mission seemed impossible: Design an automated process to mass-produce an element that existed in such small quantities that no one had ever even seen it,'' he said.

His team worked 12-hour days, six days a week -- an arms race made all the more desperate by the belief that the Nazis were closer to creating an atomic bomb.

Three years later, they produced just enough plutonium for the two bombs that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the years that followed, Seaborg was mystified by the moral debate over using the bombs.

``The proposition that it might be immoral to end the war as quickly as possible did not occur to many of us,'' he said.

Seaborg saw the atomic bomb as an instrument of peace -- a weapon so powerful, the mere fear of it would prevent future wars.

After the war, Seaborg returned to Berkeley. The periodic table of elements grew by 10 percent as he continued to discover more elements. One even bears his name: seaborgium.

Before his 40th birthday, Seaborg won a Nobel Prize.

Seaborg accepted appointment by President-elect John F. Kennedy to head the Atomic Energy Commission, and his political career was born.

He would miss the lab, but knew he was being handed a forum to promote arms control and nurture a fledgling nuclear power industry.

Seaborg's resume continued to grow: adviser to eight presidents, a variety of university positions, co-founder of numerous organizations and international efforts.

But before his death in 1999, Seaborg lamented that the environment that fostered his early discoveries was fading from American culture.

``Basic research, the kind for which there is no immediate practical application but which adds to our knowledge base, is a tempting budget target because it lacks a constituency,'' he said.

He pointed out that his own work had no immediate use, but that his radioisotopes became the workhorses of nuclear medicine, plutonium became a major energy source in the space program and americium is critical to household smoke detectors.

``You don't even know what you'll miss by cutting it,'' he warned as he watched the federal government withdraw support for some programs, ``because there's no way to know what discoveries it will spawn.''


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