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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But such is the nature of the work they have chosen, and so Ghiorso, Gregorich, Hoffman, and Ninov will soldier on, searching for that elusive Magic Island of Stability. At the moment, the world of nuclear physics is abuzz with word that the Dubna team has detected a few scant atoms of Element 116; if confirmed, the Russians will fairly own the field of superheavy research, and we will be at the precipice of a brave new world on the other side of the Periodic Table. "They've got pretty damn good evidence that they've found 116," Ghiorso says. "It's too early to give them the credit -- in fact, they haven't demanded the credit yet. But as far as I'm concerned, the Russians have topped everyone. That was the prize, you see. In fact, Georgi Flerov had a polar bear fleece, this beautiful white fleece, and he used to tell me, 'That's for the first person who discovers superheavy elements. And I wanted to tell [the Russian team], 'Well, if that fleece is still around, you get it.'"

Witnessing such breathtaking events has been the currency of Albert Ghiorso's career. In 1942, he was a glorified techie, tinkering with circuit boards; in his sixty-year career he has stood atop the world of high-energy nuclear physics, stared down McCarthy-era witchhunters, and been witness to countless quiet moments when paradigms have shifted and the world changed shape. This time, he watched his colleagues commit an international blunder, an error so prominent that when a panel of Department of Energy officials visited the lab last month for the cyclotron's annual review, the missteps of Element 118 were on everyone's lips. But Ghiorso's seen these moments before, and he knows that in the march of time, this too shall pass.

"When I started working with Seaborg, I was just maintaining his Geiger counters. I didn't even consider myself a scientist, and I was really blown over when we found element 95, and Seaborg came around and said, 'You know, you're gonna be the coauthor of the discovery of that element.' I said, 'Who, me? I'm just a technician.' I'll tell ya, it's just as exciting now as it ever was."

Posted next to Ghiorso's Chart of the Nuclides, hovering somewhere above the isotopes of scandium and titanium, is a yellowing ink print, etched in the classic style of socialist realism. A steadfast man, surrounded by the inky black of the night sky, holds a small lantern in the palm of his hand. Twenty-five years ago, Georgi Flerov, the physicist who directed the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project in 1948, sent Ghiorso this print after an international team confirmed his discovery of rutherfordium. Inside the lantern's flame, Florov has penciled in the atomic number 104. In the margin underneath, he has written, "Ghiorso will finally see the light!"

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