Lawrencium and Seaborgium

Today two more elements named after scientists – two giants of 20th Century nuclear chemistry, Ernest Lawrence and Glenn Seaborg.

The 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Lawrence for his invention of the cyclotron – a device that produces high-energy particles by accelerating them in a spiral path. The energy of these particles is such that when the right particle is fired with the right energy at the right target, a new element or isotope can form (that is, given sufficient time to keep firing until a particle actually hits a nucleus in the target, which is a chance in a very large number). It was his invention together with the team of chemists and physicists he nurtured at UC Berkeley that laid the foundations for a golden era of American element discovery. Lawrence built successively larger cyclotrons over the course of his career at Berkeley, requiring the construction of a new building topped by a large dome to house them. My design is taken from the logo of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and depicts that dome on the hill above the Berkeley campus where many element discoveries were made.

While the dome can be reached by road, Glenn Seaborg preferred to maintain his fitness by climbing the steps he’d had built up the hill. His obsession with going up and down these steps for exercise led to them being called, unofficially, the Seaborg Steps. Seaborg joined Lawrence’s team in 1937 and went on to discover or co-discover ten elements and to advise ten US Presidents on nuclear policy. He was a pioneer in nuclear medicine, played a significant role in the Manhattan project and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951. On the naming of seaborgium in 1997, Seaborg became the only person to whom one could address a letter using element names alone: Seaborgium, Lawrencium Berkelium, Californium, Americium.

With thanks to Kit Chapman and his super book Superheavy for the story of the Seaborg steps.

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