Adventures in the Atomic Age
by Glenn T. Seaborg

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Book Classification : nuclear physics - medical uses of radioactive metals -
nuclear power plants - atomic bomb -
biography / autobiography / memoirs - American history / history of science

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by Glenn T. Seaborg

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Adventures in the Atomic Age , by Glenn T. Seaborg

Adventures in the Atomic Age by Glenn T. Seaborg
Hardcover - 312 pages
First Edition, September 2001
Published by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-29991-9

            Glenn Seaborg (1912-1999) was the nuclear physicist who changed the world, for better or worse, by discovering several of the radioactive elements used in medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as those which made possible atomic power plants and the atomic bomb. Later he was the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a strong supporter of the nuclear test ban treaty.

The complete title of the book is Adventures in the Atomic Age : From Watts to Washington

On the book cover is a photo of Seaborg in his younger days, tinkering seriously with a geiger counter. Also shown is a more mature Seaborg, all smiles as he points out the element on the periodic table that was named after him, seaborgium, atomic number 106.

Inside front cover: the periodic table of elements as it appeared before World War II. Inside back cover: the periodic table as it appears today.

Three glossy inserts total 24 pages containing 56 b&w photos.

12-page 2-column index.

Dr. Seaborg's son, freelance artist Eric Seaborg, wrote the 4-page epilogue, and also completed the manuscript after Dr. Seaborg died in February of 1999.

            In this autobiography, Glenn Theodore Seaborg, the son of Swedish immigrants, devoted only 20 pages to his youth in Michigan and his college years at UCLA.

            The heart of the story really starts thumping when Seaborg went to graduate school at UCLA Berkeley in 1934. The famous theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer worked there -- they called him Oppie. [24] So did Willard Libby, the inventor of the radiocarbon dating process, for which he later won the Nobel Prize in 1960. [27] The dean of the chemistry department was G.N. Lewis, who had discovered the fact that molecules are formed by covalent bonds of the atoms' outer shell electrons, and when chemistry students read about Lewis acids and bases, this is the guy. [41-42, 48] Seaborg had gotten himself into good company.

            Ernest Lawrence had invented the cyclotron in 1932 and the UCLA chemistry lab was one of the first installations to have the expensive gizmo. [27] Unaware of the dangers of radiation, the students operated the cyclotron without protective shielding. [28]

            In his second year of grad school, Seaborg collaborated with fellow student Jack Livingood. They invented several radioactive tin isotopes and published their findings. [33-34] Then they developed an isotope of iron which soon permitted medical doctors to track the flow of human blood. [35] Next they invented iodine 131, which allowed doctors to locate thyroid tumors. [38] Soon afterward, they invented cobalt 60, used to eliminate cancerous tumors without damaging the surrounding normal cells. [38]

            In his third year of grad school, UCLA offered two students fellowships allowing them to work full time as researchers. They were Glenn Seaborg and David Grahame. [37] The two worked together on their thesis on subatomic particle collisions, based on previously published work by the Japanese physicist Seishi Kikuchi. [38] Seaborg acquired his Ph.D. at the age of 25. [43]

Table of Contents

Adventures in the Atomic Age ,
by Glenn T. Seaborg

1.  Michigan Boyhood			       3
2.  California Here We Come		       9
3.  A Free Education			      17
4.  Graduate School Wonderland		      23
5.  Apprentice to a Master Chemist	      41
6.  The Atom Splits			      54
7.  Plutonium : A Secret Discovery	      65
8.  The Manhattan Project		      86
9.  Scaling Up a Billion Times		     104
10. Reflections on the Bomb		     118
11. Rearranging the Table of Elements	     125
12. Back to the Rad Lab 		     131
13. The H-Bomb and Oppenheimer		     138
14. Big Prizes, Children, Elements,
       and a Nobel			     147
15. A Chancellor's Three Challenges          158
16. Kennedy's Call : A Move to Washington    180
17. LBJ : A President and a Friend	     199
18. Troubles with Nixon -- an a Look
       Inside the AEC			     212
19. Nuclear Power : It's Past and Future     239
20. A Professor Again			     252

Epilogue by Eric Seaborg		     293

Photo Credits				     299
Index					     301

            In 1938 Emilio Segre, co-discoverer of the element technetium, joined the research department. Seaborg and Segre collaborated on further studies of technetium, and they discovered gamma rays. They delayed publication because Oppenheimer disputed their claim that gamma rays are electromagnetic waves produced in the atomic nucleus, unlike alpha and beta rays, which are streams of particles produced in the nucleus. Their findings were reproduced and verified at other institutions, "... but we had missed out on credit for the discovery." [50]

            Enrico Fermi made the next major development in nuclear physics. Whereas Seaborg and Livingood had transmuted elements into other elements close to them on the periodic table, Fermi split the nucleus, transforming elements into other elements far above them on the periodic table.

            While attempting to produce neptunium, atomic number 93, Seaborg accidentally produced a new element the atomic number of which turned out to be 94. [65-71] They named it plutonium, and noticed that its fission rate was much better than that of uranium, the choice of the day in experimental atom-smashing. [77-78] "The War Department took notice." [78] Germany had invaded Poland, and World War II was thrust upon civilization. In 1942, the War Department began the Manhattan Project, the codename for the secret development of the atomic bomb. [78] It was known that Germany didn't have a cyclotron powerful enough to manufacture plutonium. [88] Viewing it as "an important war project," [86] Seaborg was relocated to the University of Chicago to find an efficient way to produce plutonium by the pounds, rather than the merely salt grain sized traces that were already available. [86, 95]

            This autobiography also takes breaks from the science to discuss how Seaborg met Helen Griggs. The two were engaged and married. She accompanied him on his relocation to Chicago. [83]

            Seaborg expected to be killed in the laboratory because by this time the dangers of radiation were known. This knowledge had been obtained from the sacrifice of factory workers who used radium to make glow-in-the-dark wristwatches and were poisoned. He knew that plutonium is much more radioactive than radium. Like the soldiers, sailors and pilots, Seaborg accepted the risk out of patriotism. [95]

            A colleague at Chicago was Arthur H. Compton, famous for his experiental proof that light waves have particle characteristics, since, when a photon and an electron meet, they have an elastic collision quite like that of two billiard balls (the Compton Effect). [88]

            In the above paragraphs, I have commented on the first one-third of the book.

            Chapter 10, "Reflections on the bomb," discusses not only the political and scientific issues surrounding the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also "the soul-searching among scientists." [124]

            After the war, Mr. and Mrs. Seaborg had children, and in 1951 he won the Nobel Prize. [141-151] He often disappeared, sneaking away to play golf or to attend football games. [158-159] Having been made the chancellor of UCLA Berkeley, Seaborg did his best to inject humanistic policy when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused student protesters of being Communists, and when students were disciplined for sexual activity. [173-179]

Also by Glenn T. Seaborg ...

A Chemist in the White House : From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War , by Glenn T. Seaborg

A Chemist in the White House : From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War

Hardcover - 450 pages - Published 1998 by the American Chemical Society.

Contents :

  1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945 -- A Race Against the Nazis for the Atomic Bomb
  2. Harry S. Truman 1945-1953 -- How To Best Use This Awesome Power
  3. Dwight David Eisenhower 1953-1961 -- The President's Science Advisory Committee
  4. John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1961-1963 -- A Passion for Arms Control
  5. Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969 -- An Overwhelming Personality Supports the Nonproliferation Treaty
  6. Richard Milhous Nixon 1969-1974 -- Adjusting to Troubled Times
  7. Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. 1974-1977 -- A Longtime Friend
  8. James Earl (Jimmy) Carter, Jr. 1977-1981 -- A Fellow Nuclear Scientist
  9. Ronald Wilson Reagan 1981-1989 -- An Amiable Fellow
  10. George Herbert Walker Bush 1989-1993 -- Continued Opposition to a Comprehensive Test Ban
  11. William Jefferson Clinton 1993-1997 -- Renewed Hope for a Comprehensive Test Ban
  12. Conclusion

            In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Seaborg to be the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He accepted the honor, and the family moved to Washington, D.C. [180] Seaborg faught in favor of adopting a nuclear test ban treaty, which would permit only underground testing of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and the Soviet Union eventually signed the treaty. [183-188] When Lyndon Johnson became the President, he retained all of Kennedy's federal appointments, so Seaborg still had his job. [189] After a lot of convincing, several nations agreed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). which said that nations with nuclear weapons could not ship them to, nor share the technology with, nations that lacked such weapons. [208-211] (Interesting facts about the role of the AEC - see pages 222-223.)

            When Richard Nixon was inaugurated in 1969. he asked Seaborg to stay on the job. [212, 222] Seaborg found Nixon to be a nuisance. The Nixon administration displayed some "antiscience or antiscientist bias" [214] and instructed Seaborg in what to say during press conferences. [213] In 1971, Seaborg resigned from the AEC and went back to Berkeley to teach. [252]

            Chapter 19 consists of 13 pages of facts and speculation about nuclear power in general, past and future.

            Chapter 20, consisting of 41 pages, has Seaborg back at his professor's job at Berkeley.

            He ends with a commentary on the excitement that science brings:

            "This age of discovery has opened up new frontiers in space, medicine, biology, artificial intelligence, new sources of energy -- the possibilities are almost limitless. You can be part of it." [252]

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for

            If you enjoy reading about the history of physical science and modern technology, I believe this will be one of your favorite books. It is entertaining, sensitive to social needs, and it is both scientifically and politically educational.

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Adventures in the Atomic Age , by Glenn Seaborg
(Autobiography) ISBN 0-374-29991-9   /   0374299919,
Site main index :
Book Reviews - All Categories
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by Glenn T. Seaborg