A man in fuel

By Elizabeth Kiem

The list of scientific contributions and achievements in Glenn T. Seaborg’s vita is impressive. My favorite is this: he discovered plutonium. Sneak it in there with Seaborg’s Nobel Prize, his senior rank in the Manhattan Project, and his service as advisor to nine different administrations, and the feat gets lost. But single it out and think about it: the man discovered plutonium.
In the context of the 20th century it’s like saying he invented gold. Or gun powder. Or golden gunpowder.  Never mind that it was an unintentional by-product of an attempt to manufacture neptunium-– all good alchemy is accidental. And Seaborg was only just getting started. He went on to help quantify all the heavier elements up through 102, one of which is named seaborgium. Thus the Nobel Prize. He wasn’t quite 40 years old.
Adventures in the Atomic Age, From Watts to Washington, is the story of Seaborg’s scientific and political journey from research to policy making during the Cold War. It begins in the upper Michigan peninsula, where Seaborg was raised in a principled Swedish-America family. He studied science at Berkeley and then joined the Manhattan Project during WWII.
Seaborg was eventually appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, a post he used to advocate nuclear arms control and test ban treaties. In his later years, he was deeply committed to education, as both administrator and advocate.
In many ways, Seaborg’s autobiography is the perfect companion to Richard Lourie’s newly published biography of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet scientist who wielded his immense nuclear genius as a cudgel for human rights. Both understood the menace of modern science and the human responsibility to use it morally.
True to the title, Seaborg’s memoirs are fun to read. Anecdote beats out terminology, and a light-hearted, conversational tone prevails. Some of the success in the narration can be attributed to Seaborg’s son Eric, who collaborated and, ultimately, completed the book upon his father’s death in 1999.
Eric Seaborg is best known for his books about the outdoors. He’s co-authored several books with his wife, Ellen Dudley, about backpacking and hiking, particularly in the Blue Ridge. Still, his scientific writing credentials are established, as a former editor of Clinical Chemistry News. Most importantly, his relationship with his father appears to be close enough to allow both esteem and irreverence into the narrative.

Eric Seaborg, co-author of Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington: The Autobiography of Glenn T. Seaborg, will discuss his father’s personal and professional legacy at Miller Center on Wednesday at 11am.