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

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Seaborg intended to announce his discovery at a symposium of the American Chemical Society, but five days before the symposium, he served as a guest on Quiz Kids, a Chicago radio game show for children. While on the air, a child named Richard casually asked Seaborg, "Have there been any other new elements discovered, like plutonium and neptunium?" "Oh yes, Dick," Seaborg blurted before he realized what he was doing. "Recently there have been two new elements discovered -- elements with atomic numbers 95 and 96 out at the Metallurgical Laboratory here in Chicago. So now you'll have to tell your teachers to change the 92 elements in your schoolbook to 96 elements." Thus was one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in modern science announced to the world.

"When we discovered americium," Ghiorso remembers, "reporters were asking, 'What earthly good is this stuff going to do?' And we said, 'Oh, it's just because of our scientific curiosity.' Where is that element right now? It's in every household in the United States. It's in your smoke detector, one microcurie of americium."

Amid the excitement of these discoveries, Seaborg and Ghiorso confronted a bizarre conundrum: what to call the new elements. The previous three elements had been named after the planets in the outer limits of the solar system, but that option was exhausted with the naming of plutonium. Now, researchers had to come up with new rules to establish the nomenclature of heavy elements. Should the elements be named in honor of renowned scientists? Should they indicate where the discoveries had taken place? One researcher even suggested the two elements be named "pandemonium" and "delirium," in recognition of the frustrating, chaotic efforts to create and detect them.

Over the course of the next four decades, as more and more elements were discovered, the campaign to name them would be caught up in Cold War geopolitics. When LBNL scientists discovered element 101 in the '50s, for example, the researchers decided to name it "mendelevium," after the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev. "At the 1955 Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva," Ghiorso wrote in The Transuranium People, "the French chemist Haissinsky told me that our naming of element 101 in honor of a Russian scientist had probably done more good than anything that John Foster Dulles had ever done!"

By the mid-'50s, Seaborg's research team had attracted such international notice that, like Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, they found that they and their work had become inextricably bound up in Cold War diplomacy. They were no longer merely physicists pushing back the boundaries of the Periodic Table -- their work lent them a species of international renown and moral authority, a bully pulpit amid the diplomacy of nuclear brinkmanship. In 1951, Seaborg was awarded the Nobel Prize, but he and his colleagues were too busy grappling with a new dimension to their work to enjoy it. As a member of the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee, Seaborg was drawn into the controversy over whether to build the hydrogen bomb, which ultimately cost Oppenheimer his security clearance. In addition, the loyalty oaths of 1949 cast a pall over the research lab, and Ghiorso nearly lost his job because security personnel considered him a subversive.

"Al's success in science has stemmed from the fact that he has always been an original and creative thinker," Seaborg wrote in his autobiography Adventures in the Atomic Age. "His unwillingness to adopt a 'go along to get along' attitude and his undiplomatic insistence on pointing out the ludicrous nature of some of the security regulations only made the security people more intransigent.... The security people complained that before the war his wife Wilma had been a communist. Even if that had been true, during the Depression years, when capitalism had thrown millions out of work on what appeared to be a permanent basis, it was not unusual for people to have socialist or communist leanings.... By the early 1950s I'd worked and socialized with Al on a daily basis for a decade. I never detected a hint of anything that would make one suspect disloyalty, yet sometimes I had to fight like hell to keep the AEC security people from revoking his clearance."

Although a liberal Democrat, Seaborg adopted a discreet approach to politics, and his laboratory enjoyed an uninterrupted wave of patronage and funding. In 1947, the lab's 184-inch cyclotron came online, and Seaborg and Ghiorso could now accelerate deuterons to 180 million electron volts. LBNL's bevatron followed in 1953, and in 1957 the heavy ion linear accelerator, whose decommissioned carcass still lies next to Ghiorso's lab, could accelerate particles as heavy as neon. Finally, in 1961, the lab's 88-inch cyclotron, which would be used in the experiment to produce element 118, came online. Armed with these tools, Seaborg and Ghiorso discovered a rash of new elements: berkelium in 1949, californium in 1950, einsteinium and fermium in 1952, lawrencium in 1961. When John F. Kennedy took office that year, he appointed Seaborg to chair the Atomic Energy Commission, a post he was to hold for a decade.

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