American nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg’s research led to one of the most significant extensions of the periodic table since it was conceived.
Glenn’s childhood was anything but easy: he grew up in the US to Swedish-born parents in the 1920s, when economic hardship was the norm. He self-funded his chemistry degree through part-time jobs and during his PhD research, he found himself leading a double life.
Glenn’s research involved bombarding uranium with neutrons, producing isotopes that were capable of creating vast amounts of energy through chain reactions. His research was kept secret and played an important role in the race for nuclear weapons in the Second World War. During this time, Glenn married Helen Griggs, his “best discovery”, in a hasty ceremony whilst travelling between projects. Their marriage flourished into a long and happy relationship.
After the war had ended, Glenn returned to academic life to publish his work on transuranium elements and eventually, a restructured periodic table with the actinides located directly under the lanthanides. Although accepted today, his radical idea was shunned by scientists at the time. Glenn went on to win the Nobel prize in 1951 for his work.
Glenn’s interest in nuclear weapons continued throughout his life and despite actively working with them during the war, he became an advocate of the nuclear weapons treaty as chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission. Element number 106 was named Seaborgium a year before his death, in recognition of his work; his success set in stone for everyone to admire.
Words by Jenny Lovell
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory © 2010 The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Published February 2015