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If you like Glenn Seaborg's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Leon Lederman,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Edward Teller,
Charles Townes,
James Watson and
Edward O. Wilson

Glenn Seaborg's recommended reading:
Arrowsmith

Related Links:
Nobel Prize
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
Seaborg Center

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Glenn Seaborg
 
Glenn Seaborg
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Glenn Seaborg Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Discoverer of Plutonium

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  Glenn Seaborg

When you were growing up, did you plan to go into science?

Glenn Seaborg: I didn't have any idea about going into science. For example, when I was a child in a little town in northern Michigan called Ishpeming, I didn't even know what science was. My mother was born in Sweden, and she had only a grammar school education, and she didn't expose me to anything like that. No, I didn't have any notion at all that I would go into an area that I hadn't even heard about.

When did you first know what it was that you wanted to do?

Glenn Seaborg: That was in high school. I lived in a suburb. We moved from Michigan to Southern California, and I lived in a suburb of Los Angeles called Home Gardens at that time. It became South Gate. It didn't have a high school and I was bused into Watts.


I went to David Starr Jordan High School in the Watts district of Los Angeles. I was bused in because there was no high school in the place where I was living, and I took no science until my junior year when it was pointed out to me that if I didn't take a laboratory course I wouldn't meet the minimal requirements for entrance to the state university -- UCLA. The tuition-free university. Which of course is what I required, a tuition-free university. Then I took chemistry in my junior year. The teacher was Dwight Logan Reid and he just turned me on. He just preached chemistry. He told us about the discoveries that were being made, who some of the famous chemists were and I just thought it was great. I decided then and there to be a chemist. Actually we had the same teacher in my senior year for physics. It was a small high school so they couldn't teach chemistry and physics, each every year, so it was alternated, and in my senior year I took physics from Mr. Reid and I liked that even better. In those days there was more of an outlet for someone who majored in chemistry, so when I went to UCLA I majored in chemistry but took the maximum amount of physics as well.


He really made an impact on you, didn't he?

Glenn Seaborg: He did. He changed my life. Of course, I knew what science was, but I hadn't been interested at all in the general science course in my freshman year, and the biology course in my sophomore year. As I say, I was really required to take chemistry in my junior year, and he made the impact, he made the difference.

What was it that intrigued you, once he opened your eyes to chemistry and physics?

Glenn Seaborg: I think it was the system -- the logic of it all. The fact that you could learn certain principles and then make predictions. It all seemed to hang together. A certain amount of excitement... learning what the controversies in science were. He would describe these to us and then have us on the edge of our chair trying to learn what the outcome would be. He often would just leave us hanging there... just let us try to decide what the outcome would be. It was just an air of excitement.

It sounds like it wasn't just the mysteries of knowledge in chemistry and physics that you're talking about, but the mysteries of life.

Glenn Seaborg: The mysteries of life and also what people were doing and who they were and what they were accomplishing. Of course all of this made an impact on me.

What went through your mind when you started thinking about chemistry and physics? Did you know what kind of career you wanted?

Glenn Seaborg: Not really, because...


I didn't really understand the academic world very much, and of course I had a feeling that the opportunities there were very limited, so I think I had in mind that I would go into an industrial organization and serve as a chemist in industry. That's why I chose chemistry over physics. I really liked physics better. But in those days there was really no employment, no outlet for physicists ,so I solved the problem at UCLA by taking chemistry and physics, majoring in chemistry so that I would be prepared to take a job in industry when I graduated. But at the time I finished UCLA, it was clear to me that I might qualify for an academic position, and I decided that I would go on for a higher degree, a Ph.D. degree, and decided to go on to Berkeley for that. So by then my sights were set more for a position in the academic world.


This was in 1934?

Glenn Seaborg: By the time I finished UCLA, yes. It was 1934.

There probably weren't a lot of want ads in the paper for physicists at that point.

Glenn Seaborg: There were not, no. In fact, I guess one knew what a physicist was, but just barely. It was not a word that was current in the English language at that time.

Did you ever want to be other things before you got interested in science? Did you ever think about being a policeman or a fireman?

Glenn Seaborg: I don't remember having any ambitions like that at all. Maybe, yes, maybe a successful athlete. Maybe a professional football player or something like that. But so far as other professions are concerned, I didn't give it much thought. Of course I was not qualified at all to be a professional football player, being built the way I was. Six feet three and weighing all of 130 pounds, or something like that.

But somehow you saw yourself in an open field run, heading toward the goal line?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: Yes. I could. I imagined myself all the time being an unstoppable halfback. Actually, I played on sort of a sandlot football team, as an end of course. We had a real good passing combination, my friend Lawrence Eldridge and I. He was the quarterback and he'd throw the ball, and of course I would jump up a foot above everybody else and catch the ball and make a good gain and very often score a touchdown.

And you could see that as a profession?

Glenn Seaborg: I thought it would be so much fun. Of course, professional football was just getting started then. It wasn't a realistic vocation at all. I wasn't qualified to play on the high school football team. How shall I put it? I was too skinny. I've never had a weight problem in my whole life. I have told my friends I have a weight problem and they look at me with surprise, and I say, "Yes, keeping my weight up." I never get any sympathy for that.

To ask another question about your grade school life, how did you get along with your classmates?

Glenn Seaborg: Oh, pretty well. I wasn't what you'd call the outgoing type. I was a little different. I have a picture of me in the third grade class in which I'm head and shoulders above the others. No one came above my shoulders in the whole class and it looked like I'd stayed back. I got along very well. In fact I fell in love in the third grade with a girl, Dorice Gray. I never let her know, but it's something that I remember the rest of my life. I've seen her in the intervening years. We have reunions of the Ishpeming class, although I left when I was in the fifth grade. They regard me as a class member, and when they have reunions of their high school graduating class, they invite me back and I attend them. I do see Dorice Gray at that time. I have confessed to her that I was in love with her in the third grade, and the fourth grade, too.

It lasted quite a while?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, it lasted quite a while. And until the beginning of the fifth grade when we left for Los Angeles and then it gradually died out. As I say, I'd never let her know or even hinted about it.

As you look back on your education now, is there anything you would have done differently, anything you would have studied that you didn't?

Glenn Seaborg: No, nothing that stands out. I guess I was lucky. I really took whatever courses were available in chemistry and physics and mathematics, so I don't know that I could have done much better at that school... UCLA. Which by the way was a good school. There was no graduate work at that time, so there was an unusual amount of attention that the professors gave the undergraduates. So we did research much like graduate students do and so forth. Graduate student life came to UCLA a little later, just about the time that I graduated from UCLA.

You said you didn't get interested in science until your junior year. What interested you in school before that?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: Literature. Insofar as you could major in high school, I would have been a literary major. In my freshman year, for example, I took English, oral English, and world history -- which was really not a freshman course, and algebra and those were all college preparatory. I did have in mind somehow going on to college, but I wasn't sure what I would major in.

Just sort of a general direction to get more education?

Glenn Seaborg: That's right. I felt that I should get more education. My mother had other ambitions for me. My father was a machinist. His father was a machinist and his father was a machinist, and I'm fond of saying that I would have been a machinist, perhaps, if I had any talent along those lines at all. But I didn't. And my mother had other ambitions for me. She wanted me to have a white collar job, to be a bookkeeper. She thought that would be just the best possible position for her son. I disappointed her in that regard.

And your father as well?

Glenn Seaborg: I don't know if he ever thought that I would be a successful machinist. I think it was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn't talented along those lines.

That's one of those wonderful quirks of life, that you didn't have an aptitude for that.

Glenn Seaborg: Perhaps so. My mother wanted us to move from this Northern Michigan town, Ishpeming, to California so that I and my sister would have greater opportunities. She had that in mind, and also she was getting tired of the cold winters in Michigan. So between the two, she was the motivating force that moved our family into Southern California. We just sold our house, I remember, for $1,200. Bought one-way train tickets to Southern California and just hoped for the best.

It seems to have worked out pretty well.

Glenn Seaborg: We had some hard times, particularly during the Depression.

Your mother had ambitions for you?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, she did. She was a very intelligent woman and I think just a victim of circumstance. She was born in a little town in Sweden, not having the opportunity to go beyond grammar school. Her mother died when she was relatively young, and she just took off as a 17-year-old girl. Actually, her uncle, who was living in Ishpeming, was visiting in Sweden, asked her if she would like to go back to America with him, and she said, "Of course." I think her parents gave her ten dollars or something like that, and a ticket, and she went to America and to this place where he was living, the uncle, Ishpeming, Michigan, where she worked as a maid until she met my father and got married.

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This page last revised on Aug 23, 2008 14:01 EDT