Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Glenn T. Seaborg: Teacher

Reading Glenn Seaborg's book, Adventure in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington, one is immediately captivated by the genial tone, the humble perspective, and the nuance of the writer. When I picked up the book I knew nothing about Seaborg, save a little of his work in nuclear chemistry, but when I set it down I could not help but feel I knew Glenn T. Seaborg on a much more personal level.

The autobiography starts with his beginnings as the child of immigrant parents from Sweden. He was born and spent the first part of his life in Ishpeming, Michigan. It is interesting to read about such things as the time the newly minted Green Bay Packers came to town. They would play the Ishpeming team, only to lose 33-0. His father was a skilled machinist, and he writes of the trouble he had finding employment and how the Great Depression affected his family. Foreshadowing later chapters, he informs us of how the Great Depression convinced him that government could be a force to help people.

One learns of how Seaborg would earn money for college, and his love of physical exercise as a cure-all. He attended the University of California Los Angelos shortly after it was founded, and testifies in the book to the ability of public universities to level the playing field by providing students like him with opportunities he would not have had otherwise.

He talks about walking into the President's office to ask for a graduate program to be instituted. Even today it would be unheard of for an undergraduate student to get a chance to talk to the people who ran the university. He would later find himself under the tutelage of one G.N. Lewis. Yes, that G.N. Lewis, the one that created the Lewis dot-diagram. He mentions how Lewis should have won the Nobel Prize, and likely would have if he had not alienated so many scientists with his take-no-prisoners attitude during colloquium.

It is interesting to note that he so often describes people in favorable terms whenever he found occasion to do so. He talks as fondly of the presidents during his tenure as AEC chairman, as they gave him cause to. He is the only person I have ever heard of to punch Reagan in the stomach and get away with it (though you'll have to read the book for that little story). Yet with all of the deserved praise he heaps on others, and even the acknowledgment of his own achievements, he remains rather modest. He talks about rubbing shoulders and butting heads with politicians as though these things were ordeals that he struggled with, yet we see from the results he achieved that he was an adept politician and diplomat himself.

He learned a great deal from watching people do their jobs successfully, and put these lessons to use in his own life. It is an inspirational work for it teaches you about the importance of working with people rather than against them. Even after other scientists shunned Edward Teller for his damaging testimony against J. Robert Oppenheimer during the Red Scare, Seaborg did not. Despite the fact that Seaborg recognized the manner in which Teller's vociferous anti-communism poisoned his thinking, he would do his best to work with him. Indeed, consensus building was his strong suit. While working for the AEC, even when he had the majority of commissioners on his side, he would work with the minority and negotiate until they could issue a unanimous opinion.

In the book, which was published in 2001, three years after his death in February in 1999, he takes on the role of prophet. He emphasizes the damaging effects of our dependence on fossil fuels, environmentally, politically, and pragmatically. He argues for the advent of safe and clean nuclear power with the frustrated patience of someone who knows he's being reasonable, if only people would listen. It is one thing to read a book where the author holds opinions similar to your own and to walk away agreeing with him or her. While not diametrically opposed to what Seaborg believed in, I did walk away with some of my misconceptions changed. While I've always been for nuclear power, my understanding of the risks involved with nuclear power was somewhat mistaken as I see now. I also understand the importance of a level of civility in public discourse, where before reading the book I had some very different ideas about it.

Seaborg was a true scientist, doing his best to make sure he remained productive after winning the Nobel Prize for his discovery of plutonium with Edwin McMillan (though Enrico Fermi and his team* was given premature credit for the discovery.) In many respects his creation of new elements made Seaborg into a 20th century alchemist, capable of transmuting one element into another. Yet when he was asked to head the AEC, he felt a duty to accept the position, so he did, and so it was for every position he held as something other than a scientist doing basic research.

Yet, he was also a teacher, and you get the sense that it was just as important to him as anything else. He wrote about sitting down to do all of the problems in the General Chemistry textbook before teaching the class after an extended period away from the academic world. When his secretary peeked in on him, his only comment was on how hard the questions were. This is made me smile. A lot of the book made me smile, and the last part of Glenn Seaborg's own writing, before it gives way to his son's epilogue, was A Letter To A Young Scientist. Being the person to whom the letter was addressed, I closed the book and waited until I could find more peaceful surroundings. When I finally got a chance to read it in peace, I appreciated the letter. It appropriately addressed my own specific fears and concerns, allaying them and encouraging me, and for that I am grateful.

*Added in light of a comment to this post.


  1. You are getting the Enrico Fermi story wrong. Fermi was a very careful scientist who was not known to make unsubstantiated statements. It was Fermi's colleague Orso Corbino who prematurely announced the wrong discovery to the press. Fermi was extremely upset about this and made a retraction later. See "Atoms in the Family" by Laura Fermi for an account.

    The Seaborg book of course is great; a great and humble man.

  2. How did I get it wrong. I simply said he was given premature credit, which he was. I didn't say he asked for it.

    However, I have made a small amendment for improvement.


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