On this date the first atomic bomb test took place in 1945 at the Trinity Site, Alamogordo Air Force Base in New Mexico. One of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb, was Glenn Seaborg, a towering figure in 20th century chemistry.
“Gosh, they picked me?” is his genuine response when informed that readers of Chemical & Engineering News voted him among the top three chemists of the past 75 years. Considering his lifetime of accomplishments-which in addition to his scientific discoveries include chancellorship of the University of California, Berkeley (1958-61); chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; and president of the American Chemical Society (1976), to name just a few-the vote is not at all surprising.
Gilman Hall at UC Berkeley during the Lewis era is writ large in the history of chemistry. And so it is in Seaborg’s life as well. After receiving his Ph.D. degree in chemistry, he worked there for two years as Lewis’ personal research assistant. After joining the faculty as an instructor, he began a collaboration with physicist John J. (Jack) Livingood in which Seaborg chemically identified radioisotopes produced by material Livingood bombarded with deuterons and neutrons. Over the course of five years, they discovered a number of radioisotopes, including iodine-131, iron-59, and cobalt-60.
Although Seaborg’s interest in transuranium elements had been piqued by the work of Enrico Fermi and his group in Italy, starting in 1934, Seaborg credits his work with Livingood as cementing the idea that the field would become his life’s work. In 1940, element 93-neptunium, the first transuranium element-was identified by colleagues Edwin M. McMillan and Philip H. Abelson.
With McMillan’s permission, Seaborg and his group went about creating and chemically identifying the next transuranium element, number 94-plutonium. Four years later, he published his concept of the actinide series, and in 1951 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 1998 American Chemical Society