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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:

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Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Seaborg
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Glenn Seaborg Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Discoverer of Plutonium

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  Glenn Seaborg

You made major contributions to the area of nuclear medicine. At least one of those contributions touched you more personally than you might have anticipated.

Glenn Seaborg: Yes. That was iodine 131. I might begin by saying how I got into that.

I met the medical scientist, Joe Hamilton, on the steps of the Physics Building, asked him how things were going, and he said, "Not so good. I'm working with an isotope of radioactive iodine to study thyroid function, but it has a half-life of only 25 minutes and I can't get the measurements made in that time. I'd like a longer-lived isotope." I asked him, "Joe, what length of half-life would you like?" And he said, "Oh, about a week. Then it would give me some time for the experiments, but not so long but what you could make a good deal of it." I went back into the laboratory with my co-worker, Jack Livingood, and within about a month came up with iodine 131, which has a half-life of eight days. I think I was delivering about as well as anybody could ever expect. The personal story is that a few years later my mother developed this thyroid condition for which iodine 131 is the cure. She was in terrible shape. Night sweats, pulse rate of 150, I don't think she would have lasted more than a few more weeks. A physician, who had done some undergraduate research with me at Berkeley -- my mother was living in South Gate at that time and he was down there -- recognized the condition, prescribed diagnosis with iodine 131 to define the condition, and then treatment with iodine 131, and that corrected it completely and she lived for many years. That gave me the satisfaction of having one of my discoveries prolong the life of my own mother for many years.

Do those kind of things make you wonder about providence?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, that is a rather unusual coincidence, I must admit. But iodine 131 is still used and saves an awful lot of lives now.

Another one of my discoveries, with Emilio Segré, at this time, was technetium 99M, which is probably the workhorse of nuclear medicine today. It is used more than any other isotope. It has ideal properties because its half-life is only six hours so that you can do the job and it decays away and doesn't cause radiation damage, but it's kept alive by a parent which has a half-life of about three days. So that in the hospitals they can have what they call "cows" and milk the technetium 99M from the molybdenum 99 parent. As I say, that's the most used radioactive isotope in nuclear medicine today. Emilio Segré and I discovered that in 1938. We had no idea at that time that it would have these beneficial applications. We were just doing nuclear research to increase knowledge. As has been the case in a number of my discoveries, later years showed that the results of my research had many practical and beneficial applications.

What is technetium 99M used for?

Glenn Seaborg: Technetium 99M is used in the diagnosis of thyroid conditions, liver malfunction, brain tumors and a number of kidney functions. A number of medical conditions like that where the use of the radioactive isotope -- the way in which it goes to the site where the problem occurs and the measurement of that leads to the diagnosis. For example, I had a diagnosis of my thyroid that way just a few years ago. It turned out all right but the doctor immediately suspected a condition and prescribed that. It is widely used. A fair proportion of all the people who enter hospitals today will wind up being diagnosed through the technetium 99M. I bet it will be used on you before the end of your life.

What an irony that you would go to the doctor for a problem and that he would prescribe something that you'd discovered!

Glenn Seaborg: Yes. That happened in the case of technetium 99M. The doctor knew, of course, who I was and that I was the co-discoverer of that isotope, and I think he had a great deal of satisfaction in being able to apply it to me. He explained it all to me. He showed how the isotope was made and applied it. Then he showed me the print-out and the film and explained it to me and so forth. I think he got a lot of satisfaction out of that.

In a way it's a wonderful paraphrase of the old line, "Physician, heal thyself."

Glenn Seaborg: It would have turned out that way. It was only a diagnostic tool in this case, and I came out not suffering from the condition that he was suspecting might be the case.

All modesty aside, how would you describe the contributions you've made to your field? What's been the most exciting moment in your career?

Glenn Seaborg: The most exciting episodes were my years at the Metallurgical Laboratory working on the atomic bomb. The stakes were so high. We thought that Hitler's Germany was ahead of us, that we were in a losing race and we knew, of course, what that would mean if Hitler got the atomic bomb. So we worked six days a week and five nights for meetings. I took Sundays off to play golf in order to keep going. That was certainly the most exciting part of my life. In terms of discoveries, I would have to rate the discovery -- i.e., the synthesis and identification -- of plutonium and all if stands for. It's the explosive ingredient for the atomic bomb, it's one of the nuclear fuels used in nuclear power reactors. Perhaps my biggest scientific contribution was changing the periodic table. That is what they call the actinide concept -- placing the heaviest elements in a separate row at the bottom of the periodic table, hence changing the whole form of the periodic table from the original concept of the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev.

In a way, you reorganized the way people approach chemistry.

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, certainly at that upper end. There's an interesting story connected with that.

When I was ready to publish that right after the war, I showed it to what I think were the two leading inorganic chemists in the world. I said, "Here, I'm going to rearrange the periodic table and publish it, and make the suggestions, and what do you think?" They said, "Don't you do it, Glenn. You would ruin your scientific reputation." Well, I had an advantage. I didn't have any scientific reputation so I went ahead and published it and, of course, that is now the form of the periodic table that's used universally throughout the world. I would say that was my greatest scientific contribution, although I've been involved also in the discovery -- with my co-worker, Albert Ghiorso, here in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory -- of ten transuranium elements, the synthetic chemical elements above the upper end of the stable elements, or natural elements, that end at uranium, atomic number 92.

Were people shocked when you revised the periodic table?

Glenn Seaborg: Their view of the periodic table -- which had existed since the time of Mendeleyev, 1869 -- was so entrenched that they just didn't think that it made any sense to rearrange it the way I was doing. They thought that if I published it, I would be ridiculed. But I was so convinced by that time that I was right that I went ahead anyway and published it.

Were you ridiculed?

Glenn Seaborg: No. Not really. Because it was so logical. There were a number of scientists who never accepted it, who actually went to their grave disputing me and saying that this was not a sound move, a sound change to be made in the periodic table, but they were a minority. The great majority of the scientific world accepted it. Not immediately, but very soon. I often describe how scientists sometimes accept things like this. It seems to go through stages -- they first say that it's impossible, it can't be this way, and then as time goes on and it's accepted, they say, well it was obvious in the first place. That's sort of what I went through in this case. As I say, people began to think it's obvious and it's accepted. Now it's in every book -- every high school chemistry book, every college book, every chart of the isotopes and so forth. It's universally accepted and it's pretty well -- I received credit for having made it. It's probably the main reason that I received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951, sharing it, of course, with my colleague, Edwin McMillan, who had discovered the first of the transuranium elements -- the element with the atomic number 93, neptunium. Plutonium has the atomic number 94.

How did you decide what to name the new element?

Glenn Seaborg: That's very interesting too.

The last planet was Uranus and when the German chemist Klaproth discovered uranium, I think it was 1789, he decided to name it after Uranus. When McMillan and Abelson synthesized and identified -- we say discovered -- the next element, the first transuranium element, with the atomic number 93, in 1940, in the meantime the planet Neptune had been discovered, so McMillan decided he would name it neptunium. Then when we synthesized the next element, element 94, later in 1940 and the beginning of 1941, we decided to name it after the next planet, Pluto. Here's a little-known story. We perhaps should have named it therefore plutium, but I liked the sound of the name plutonium, it rolled off better. And even more controversial or it might have been, was the symbol. If the name was plutonium, the symbol obviously should be "Pl." I liked the sound of the symbol "Pu" better, and suggested that be the symbol, expecting that it would be met with resistance when the work was declassified after the war -- we were doing this work on a secret basis -- that I would be roundly criticized for giving the element the symbol Pu, and nobody criticized us at all. It was accepted immediately and everybody now -- people don't know even now that there might have been another possibility for the symbol for plutonium.

Why were you so drawn to Pu?

Glenn Seaborg: I just liked it. Phew! Phew! Let's say in the sense that scientists like to have a little fun and I just thought it would be great to give a symbol like that to a chemical element.

In those days you probably weren't having very much fun, so you had to find it where you could.

Glenn Seaborg: That was it, yes.

There's no planets beyond Pluto so that when we synthesized and identified the next elements we had to use another system. The next one, 95, we called americium because, due to my actinide concept, we knew by then, that it was an analogue of a so-called rare earth element which was named europium, after the continent of Europe, so we named element 95 after the continents of the Americans. The next one was 96, named curium, after Pierre and Marie Curie, the leading investigators of radioactivity, because the element that it was a homologue of is gadolinium, named after a person, the Finnish rare earth chemist, Johann Gadolin. Then the next element, 97, we named berkelium. We hit the jackpot because it is analogous, homologous, with the rare earth element, terbium, that was named after a city Ytterby in Sweden, and so we named it after the city of Berkeley. Then for the next one we had to use a different system because the analogous element was dysprosium, named after the Greek word dysprositos, meaning "difficult to get at," and we decided California was "difficult to get at" in 1849 during the gold rush, so we will just name it californium. I have an interesting story to tell about the naming of berkelium and californium. At the time that we published this and announced these names, the "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker magazine ran a little story saying they had noticed that some California scientists had discovered the next two elements and they had, in typical California fashion, named them after California and Berkeley. They said that we really made a mistake. We didn't exhibit foresight. We should have named 97 "universitium" and element 98 "ofium," thus reserving for elements 99 and 100 "berkelium" and "californium." I answered it but they didn't print it. I said they couldn't accuse us of lack of foresight. They might accuse us of lack of confidence. I said we got our names in first for 97 and 98, berkelium and californium, thus forestalling the possibility of some New Yorker finding the next two elements and naming them newium and yorkium.

Did they print it?

Glenn Seaborg: They didn't print that. They sent me a letter back. They said, "We are busy in our laboratories trying to synthesize the next two elements." That's all they did. They sent that little letter back.

Maybe one of these days someone will discover and identify a new element and call it seaborgium.

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: That is suggested many times and I have only one answer to that and that usually makes the person withdraw the suggestion. They only name elements after dead people so I would not like to see that.

So that's not something you're looking forward to.

Glenn Seaborg: That's not something I'm looking forward to.

When you're away from your work, do you think about it a lot? Is your mind constantly drawn back to the laboratory?

Glenn Seaborg: I think of it a lot subconsciously. Some of my thoughts apparently come while I'm asleep. I wake up at night or in the morning with a clear thought, a clear objective, a new idea. I think of it a lot ,and as I say, I believe that thinking includes a subconscious process. I'm not a psychologist. I can't define for you the mechanism at all, but I certainly have the feeling that there's some subconscious thinking going on. It's sort of going on most of the time. But when I take time off and take a hike, or as I used to play golf, then I'm not thinking about it. Then I'm completely absorbed in an activity or social event.

Are there days when you get out of bed with that thought and dash into the office and you come in looking for your colleagues?

Glenn Seaborg: That's right. That's happened to me a lot of times during my life.

That must be a very thrilling moment.

Glenn Seaborg: Absolutely. That's why, as I said earlier, the appellation, "excitement," comes into it. Let's face it. We love excitement and scientists find excitement in their work, in their discoveries. In fact, I think it's excitement at a level where most other people don't experience the thrill of the chase and the catch.

You've managed to catch quite a few.

Glenn Seaborg: As I've said, I've been lucky.

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