Glenn Seaborg Interview (page: 6 / 8)
Discoverer of Plutonium
Was there someone who gave you your first big break?
Glenn Seaborg: It's a little hard to answer. One of the young physicists in the Radiation Laboratory, named Jack Livingood, asked me to join him to make the chemical separations that led to the discovery of the isotopes that are so important even today in nuclear medicine. Gilbert Lewis chose me to be his personal research assistant when I received my Ph.D. at Berkeley. I profited immensely from working every day, side by side with the greatest physical chemist in the world. Then of course, Ernest Lawrence, with his Radiation Laboratory available to me, certainly played a very important role in my life and accomplishments.
Could you identify someone as the single most positive influence on your professional life?
Glenn Seaborg: That would be hard to do. Maybe it would be Lewis. I was just in a good environment. There were many first class scientists working at the very forefront of a new field and at a place where they had the apparatus and equipment to make it possible to make great advances. I think that my colleagues that I had both in the Chemistry Department and the Radiation Laboratory of the Physics Department, they were the best in the country. The best in the world. I had another piece of luck in the way that I was sort of trained in the borderline between chemistry and physics. There was a tremendous area of opportunity for a chemist who could apply his knowledge and techniques to the nuclear physics of transmutations in the identification of the products. I had prepared myself almost in a unique manner, unknowingly, to work in that fruitful borderline area.
A lot of people have brains and potential and work hard. Why do you think you succeeded where others did not?
Glenn Seaborg: I've often wondered about that. I've known so many people who I thought were brighter than I am, whose accomplishments tapered off as they went along. I think I would have to credit persistence, and I hate to use this word, but hard work. That may be the difference. That probably accounts for the difference in the success.
Just keeping at it and not giving up?
Glenn Seaborg: Not giving up, and as I say, this is a corny word, but hard work. Again, not as a sacrifice. I liked it. It was what I wanted to do. I never thought, my gosh, now I have to go back to the laboratory. That's where I wanted to be. Nevertheless, that's where I was and it was hard work. Working, doing research nearly all of my waking hours. I took time out to go to the movies and dancing. I went to the city where the big bands were playing in those days with girlfriends and so forth, but my number one priority was to do the research and work out the problems and get the results and interpret it and write papers and write review articles and so forth.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
So your priorities were clear, but you weren't living a monkish life?
Glenn Seaborg: No, not at all. I loved dancing with girlfriends to the big bands that were playing at the Fairmont Hotel, the Mark Hopkins, the Palace Hotel, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.
Did you realize at some point that there was just the right balance you could strike between having time off and relaxing, and spending the hours in full concentration at the lab?
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I think I did learn that. I just felt the need for it. I always took Friday evening off. I went through the week, and Friday evening I would go out to a movie or have a date or whatever, almost I might say with extreme regularity, to get a new lease on life. And maybe again Saturday night, too.
When you came back to the lab, you were refreshed?
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I was recharged.
There were a few times in life when I went too far. I ran myself down, where I wouldn't say I had a breakdown, but I was extremely exhausted, and I learned how to get around that too. For example, that happened to me when I was in Chicago working at the Metallurgical Laboratory on the atomic bomb project. After a year I was just almost washed out. Someone mentioned to me, "What you should do, Glenn, is play golf." And I began to play golf every weekend and that did it. It just kept the juices flowing, the exercise you needed, the recreation. The taking on of new problems and so forth. And a little later in life, when I had similar problems, I took up hiking, and for the last 25 years or more, but with regularity, I've been a hiker and we'd go hiking on weekends. Yes, I did learn the need for these -- paying some attention to these -- other areas of activity.
To give your mind a breather?
Glenn Seaborg: It wasn't only to give your mind a breather so that you'd come back refreshed, but getting your body into shape, exercising, improve the circulation of the blood. Maintenance you might call it. You just couldn't work in the laboratory or at the desk all the time. You need to pay some attention to the bodily functions and that's what I did early in life -- taking up golf and a little later through hiking. As I say, it refreshed your mind, this physical activity. Equally importantly, it kept the metabolic function going so that you were physically healthy enough to carry on the work.
The road to success is usually a winding one. What kinds of setbacks did you have along the way, and what did you learn from them?
Glenn Seaborg: Setbacks? I don't remember any. I could give you a number of cases where I missed a discovery. I don't know if you would call that a setback. Like nuclear fission and other things. That's in retrospect.
Were there things that happened in the course of your research and your work that stopped you cold for a moment? That made you think twice about it? That shook perhaps your confidence in what you were doing?
Glenn Seaborg: I can remember in the case of the identification of one of the transuranium elements, where if we had made a clearer interpretation at the time it would have been better for us. Not doing so led to controversy and so forth. Those are the only instances that occur to me.
So you truly have been lucky.
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I think so.
Have you ever had doubts about your work, about your abilities? Have there been moments when you questioned where you were headed and how well you were doing at it?
Glenn Seaborg: No, I don't think so. I don't remember any. I had a pretty clear course the whole time.
We were talking about the balance between professional life and personal life. Who or what has had the greatest influence on your personal life?
Glenn Seaborg: My wife Helen, for sure. There's where I was lucky again. She was Ernest Lawrence's secretary and I had an occasion to go up there and do a little bit of business and my eyes were open. I was going with somebody else, and she was going with somebody else, so it took a little while to straighten that out, but I had my eyes set on her. Then I began to date her, and she is really the best thing that ever happened to me. We were married 48 years ago. I still think she's the most attractive woman that I know. I'm just lucky. I was perspicacious enough to see that this is somebody that I should try to get interested in me.
People who do research can get a pretty good case of tunnel vision, where you are so concentrated you lose sight of the broader aspects of life. Is that one of the things that your wife has done for you, to help remind you that there is something outside of the laboratory?
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I think so. Also she's so supportive and so sensitive, so generous. She's just been a source of joy. Every night when I come home, I look forward to greeting her as I come into the house.
You seem to have a real streak of romance in you, both personally and professionally.
Glenn Seaborg: I could have told you again that I fell in love in the ninth grade with another girl, Vivian Dawson, and again sort of in college. That was the daughter of Dwight Logan Reid. She wound up going to UCLA, Beth Reid, and I dated her for about a year, and then there were others before I met Helen, but I very often went in those days -- from UCLA on -- with more than one girl at a time. I loved the relationship, completely platonic relationship, but I hadn't fallen in love overboard until I met Helen, and then I only went with her from then on until we were married.
Was there something about the pursuit of science that also seemed romantic to you?
Glenn Seaborg: I think so, yes. And certainly the tie in with Arrowsmith.
What would you say to a student who may be contemplating a scientific career? What can you tell them about the rewards and satisfaction of a career in science?
Glenn Seaborg: I'd probably answer that on three levels.
One, there is a very interesting and exciting field to enter in becoming a scientist or engineer. Here you'll have -- if you are a research scientist -- you'll have the excitement of discovery, the excitement that I've had the privilege of living with for most of my adult life. A scientist or engineer also has the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is working in the really central area in today's society. A very important area because we're living in a highly-competitive international society. Scientists and engineers are the key to that. That's the first area. The other area is the one I referred to already -- one needs a certain minimal knowledge of science and mathematics to perform competently and adequately in today's workforce -- the more complicated technological society in which we live. Third, even if you are not involved in either of these, which is not very likely, you still need a certain minimal amount of scientific literacy in order to cope, to perform, to vote in today's society. There are so many questions that have a scientific basis for them, some of which I've already mentioned. How are we going to meet the challenge of the greenhouse effect? The other environmental challenges like acid rain, the questions about nuclear power, can we understand these and make meaningful decisions on those? The question of food additives, the need to make sensible decisions about that ,and I could go on and on. The average citizen needs to have a higher degree of scientific literacy today, and this will increase in the future, the requirement for this.
Many of the central issues in today's society really concern our very survival. The question of arms limitation. The question of whether we should have a comprehensive test ban, which by the way, I strongly favor. These depend on some minimal understanding of science. A citizen just can't react sensibly in today's society without a greater understanding of science. They don't have to be a scientist but they do require a greater understanding of science than has ever been the case in the past.
For those who are thinking about a career in science, it offers an opportunity to be at the very heart of some of these issues.
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, you will of necessity be in a position of importance, a position that is central in today's society. I would urge young students who are considering careers to become conversant, very well versed in science, whether they go into science or not.
It's not just a question of having a job, it's a question of helping shape tomorrow?
Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I don't see how as time goes on and as we proceed in the inevitable direction that we are proceeding, how any person who isn't knowledgeable to a minimal degree and conversant in science can play a role in helping to shape the world of tomorrow.
If you were a young scientist today and you were just starting, what would be the most exciting field to go into?
Glenn Seaborg: That's easy to answer, biological science. When I was entering, I wasn't even interested in biology, but now we've reached the point where we can make discoveries in the biological sciences that will have a tremendous influence on the treatment and cure of disease, the understanding of the life process. Perhaps even the creation of life itself. So for example, the human genome project. That's to understand all of the genes and the whole functioning of the human body that is now being undertaken. A multi-million-dollar project for which there's a feeling that it can lead to a tremendous control over disease and so forth. I would say very definitely biology and the life sciences would be the most exciting. But I don't want to denigrate physics and chemistry and the other areas. There's still a good deal to be discovered there, and many important discoveries from the standpoint of contributions to human welfare in those fields as well. I'm just putting biology number one. That doesn't mean that chemistry and physics and the other areas are not interesting and worth entering as well.
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This page last revised on Aug 23, 2008 14:01 EST
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