Mount Vernon Nazarene University: Life Changing

Great Chemists


Glenn T. Seaborg

Glenn T. Seaborg was born in Ishpeming, Michigan in 1912. His family moved to southern California when he was ten. He took chemistry as a junior in high school. It was his first experience with science. The attraction was immediate and irresistible. "Why hasn't someone told me about this before?", he wrote. From that moment on, his goal was to become a scientist.

He majored in chemistry at UCLA, earned a Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1937, and taught chemistry there for several years. While at Berkeley, he discovered several radioactive isotopes, including cobalt-60 and iodine-131, which are widely used for radiation treatment of cancer, and technetium-99m, which is used in diagnostic radiology.

During World War II, Seaborg worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago. He discovered plutonium (element 94) in 1941, and quickly realized that it could be used to build an atomic bomb. He was a member of the Franck Committee which urged the United States government to demonstrate the bomb over an uninhabited island, hoping this would persuade Japan to surrender. Later, as AEC chairman, Seaborg advocated a ban on nuclear weapons testing.

The transuranium elements, whose atomic numbers are greater than 92, do not occur in nature because they are too unstable. They are synthesized from other elements using particle accelerators called cyclotrons. Seaborg made plutonium by bombarding uranium atoms with a beam of deuterons (hydrogen-2 nuclei).

Seaborg's research led to a reorganization of the Periodic Table of Elements. The elements he discovered became part of the actinide series (90-103), which appear in the bottom row of the chart.

In 1951 Seaborg shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with physicist Edwin McMillan, who had discovered Neptunium (element 93).

Seaborg was chancellor of U.C. Berkeley (1958-1961), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1961-1970), president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1972), and president of the American Chemical Society (1976).

During his career, Seaborg discovered ten elements (numbers 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, and 106). He was the only person ever to patent a chemical element. He held patents on americium (95) and curium (96). Americium is used as the source of alpha-radiation in smoke detectors.

Two years ago, element 106 was renamed Seaborgium. It was the only element ever to be named for a still-living person. Seaborg regarded this as a greater honor than his Nobel prize.

Glenn T. Seaborg passed away on February 25, 1999 from complications of a stroke. He was 86.
 
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