Playing God 

Albert Ghiorso and his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley national laboratory have been constructing new elements since 1948. They've had many spectacular successes—and helped give birth to the nuclear age. Occasionally, however, things don't work out

Albert Ghiorso is a man who likes to decorate -- and has the power to dictate the feng shui of perhaps the most famous research institute in history. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Center for Beam Physics, in the conference room that bears his name, Ghiorso has posted his personal collection of oil paintings by Mel Brenner. Along one wall, however, a more pragmatic graphic display yellows beneath a glass frame: an ancient chart of isotopes, begun in 1948 by Ghiroso's longtime collaborator Glenn Seaborg, preserved at the former's request. As Seaborg and his colleagues discovered legions of heavy elements in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the chart began to overflow with the new additions. Finally Seaborg was forced to cram Element 101, the last one that could fit, into the upper right-hand corner.

Downstairs in Ghiorso's personal laboratory, a second wall boasts mementos from his life. There's another Brenner oil hanging above aging clips from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a startling black-and-white photograph of the infamous 1969 riots when then-governor Ronald Reagan ordered helicopters to tear-gas captive protesters on the UC Berkeley campus. Ghiorso's son shot the picture of the helicopter's undercarriage just moments before the gas wafted down upon him.

This wall is much more than merely a place to display Ghiorso's personal effects, however -- it also contains the centerpiece of his life's work. Stretching from one end of the wall to the other hangs the vast "Chart of the Nuclides," a graph detailing the structure of every atomic nucleus that has ever been found to exist -- or coaxed into existence -- in the universe since the dawn of nuclear science. The chart hinges on two axes: The vertical axis refers to the number of protons in a nucleus, the critical factor which distinguishes, say, carbon from oxygen and dictates the properties of an element; the horizontal axis refers to the number of neutrons, which determines the different isotopes of each distinct atom. Documented on this chart are the nuclear cores of everything in the universe that has organized itself into atomic structure from simple hydrogen, in the lower left-hand corner, to the nameless and theoretical "superheavy" elements in the upper right.

Ghiorso began this chart thirty years ago, filling it as far as he could and leaving a void in the upper right-hand corner. This nuclear ellipse represented everything that high-energy nuclear physics had yet to discover but that Ghiorso knew lay just beneath the horizon, waiting for him. It represented the future. In the next three decades, Ghiorso played a personal role in filling in that gap, helping to discover the heavy elements rutherfordium, dubnium, and seaborgium -- the last of which he named after his famous peer. "I started the idea of naming elements after people," he says with a grin. "When I named element 106 after Seaborg, he said to me, 'You know Al, I think that's the greatest thing you've ever done.' Glenn had a very big ego, you see, but he was also a great scientist." Altogether, Ghiorso is credited with having discovered at least twelve elements, more than anyone else in history.

Put simply, Albert Ghiorso is a giant in his field, on a par with Andrei Sakharov, Robert Oppenheimer, and Ernest Lawrence. Now 86 years old, he has been in a state of semiretirement for twenty years, but still contributes to striking breakthroughs in nuclear physics. Early in 1999, Ghiorso designed a groundbreaking device known as the Berkeley Gas-filled Separator (BGS), a means to separate atomic particles by mass with an unprecedented degree of clarity. Mere weeks after the BGS came online, a team of Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientists led by Ken Gregorich and Darleane Hoffman used it to discover two nuclides that had never before been seen: elements 118 and 116. It was one of the most spectacular and internationally celebrated discoveries in the field of high-energy nuclear physics, and it allowed Ghiorso to post two more elements in the upper right-hand corner of his chart. In his honor, the research team tentatively announced that they planned to dub element 118 "Ghiorsium."

But it was never to be. On July 27, that same research team was forced to retract its discovery, and Ghiorso's name never made it onto the Periodic Table. Something had gone terribly wrong.

In 1940, Edwin McMillan and Ernest Lawrence discovered the elements neptunium and plutonium and transformed Berkeley's radiation lab into the undisputed international center for the discovery of new elements. Over the course of the next 34 years, Lawrence, Seaborg, Ghiorso, and Hoffman discovered a host of new elements, reorganized the Periodic Table, and netted three Nobel Prizes; it was their work that made possible both the atom bomb and nuclear energy, forever changing the global balance of power.

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