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Adventures in the Atomic Age
From Watts to Washington
By Glenn T. Seaborg with Eric Seaborg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
312 pgs. US$25/C$39.95

A remarkable life of science

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 8, 2001

Adventures in the Atomic AgeHad Glenn T. Seaborg - who passed away in 1999 - simply been known as the discoverer of element 94, better known as plutonium, in 1940 his place in history would have been assured. Kept secret because of the Second World War, that discovery was announced in the most spectacular fashion to the world on August 6, 1945 with Little Boy's dropping on Hiroshima. As his posthumously published biography easily makes the case for, his contributions to the world included much more, evidenced perhaps by the fact he is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest entry in "Who's Who in America."

Born in 1912 in Michigan of hard-working Swedish immigrants, Seaborg and his family moved to California early in his life. That move turned out to be the catalyst for Seaborg's future path in life. A high school teacher there sparked his interest in chemistry that later led him to atomic physics at Berkeley in 1934. It was a momentous time in a new field with discoveries made on what seemed to be a weekly basis and it allowed Seaborg to perform pioneering research in the field while working and studying under men like Robert Oppenheimer.

Although a passionate devotee of scientific research for its own sake, the advent of the Second World War saw Seaborg dedicated his talents to the war effort. Realizing the tremendous power that fission promised and fearful that Germany might already possess the technology, scientists like Seaborg worked non-stop to make the atom bomb a reality. That quest forms the core of Adventures in the Atomic Age and happily Seaborg mostly manages to make the science behind the work accessible to the lay reader.

Seaborg and McMillan on the day they were notified that they had won the Nobel Prize, October 1951
Seaborg and McMillan on the day they were notified that they had won the Nobel Prize, October 1951

Following the war, Seaborg won the Noble Prize in 1951 along with Edwin McMillan and continued his work in science. Appointed by John F. Kennedy to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he served a total of ten years, Seaborg followed the example of many of his colleagues and worked towards international arms control agreements -- even helping negotiate a limited test ban treaty - and the promotion of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

His career though, will be judged on the basis of his scientific contributions and on that count he deserves to be considered among the greatest of the twentieth century. By discovering or co-discovering ten new elements - including element 106, which was named seaborgium in his honor -- and countless isotopes, Seaborg no less than redrew the Periodic Table that has tormented generations of high school students. And although his work in nuclear science produced the atom bomb, it also produced power generation and isotopes used in cancer treatments and fire alarms.

If Seaborg's effort does fall short occasionally it's his failure to more deeply delve into the philosophical ramifications of his work. While the atom bomb's use can be rationalized on intellectual levels, Adventures in the Atomic Age disappoints by Seaborg not more deeply analyzing his role in its creation. Although he justifies the bomb's development on the grounds that the Germans had their own nuclear program - showed after the war to be a half-hearted one at best - and presented a danger to Allies had they managed to come up with their own device, Seaborg gives little insight into the moral battle that must have occurred within him outside of arguing that the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki wasn't necessary. Seaborg essentially justifies the creation of the greatest weapon of mass destruction with a cost-benefit analysis, a rather simple argument in a tremendously complex debate.

Like all biographies or autobiographies with scientists as their subjects, Seaborg's works best when the story moves to his personal life, such as the charming story of his marriage. Once he begins to detail the intricacies of his scientific discoveries, those without a background in science may find themselves occasionally skipping ahead a few sentences. Conservatives will also likely be annoyed by his pro-big government stance and love for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite that, one thing comes through clear from his everyman account: Glenn Seaborg loved science for its own sake. His account of his life and work is an illuminating window into a science that has changed our world for the better and a testament to one man's extraordinary accomplishments.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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