January 24, 2011
The Ultimate Obit – The periodic table
I’ve always wondered if people who know what the first line in their obituary will be are lucky or cursed. Sure, you know already how (and that) history will remember you. But it’s got to be constricting, too—a feeling of already being defined, as if you can’t contribute anymore. It must be doubly worse for scientists, who often do their best work when young, and have it hanging over them for decades.
Of course, it’s even worse to know what the first line in your obit should be—and then not rate an obit at all, because people forgot you. Such was the fate of Albert Ghiorso (hard “g”), who helped discover more chemical elements, a dozen, than any human being who ever lived. Yet his death earned just three measly mentions in newspapers across the country (and those weeks after he died). I’d like to do the little I can to rectify that.
I wrote about Ghiorso in a recent book, and beyond the wizardry of his science, I remember most of all his mischief. He specialized in building radiation detectors that could pick out the presence of just a few atoms of new elements. The discovery of a new element was always a celebratory event—the periodic table is the most precious real estate in science—so during one experiment Ghiorso decided to wire his radiation detector to his building’s fire alarms at the University of California at Berkeley, so it would briiiiiing every time an atom appeared. For various reasons his team ran the experiment at night, and they cheered all through the a.m. as the atoms rang out. It was a complete success, except Ghiorso forgot to unwire the fire alarm the next morning. While he was at home sleeping, it went off during the day, forcing a panicked evacuation. The administration was not amused. In discovering a different element, berkelium, element 97, Ghiorso suggested using “Bm” as the chemical symbol for it, because it had been such a “stinker” to discover. To the eternal disappointment of every sophomore chemistry student in the world, the idea was vetoed.
The man who primarily vetoed that inspired suggestion was the senior scientist in Ghiorso’s lab, the much more famous (and more often obit-uated) chemist Glenn Seaborg, who died in 1999. Seaborg discovered plutonium, and worked on the Manhattan Project; he won the Nobel Prize for his work discovering elements, and then advised presidents Kennedy through Bush pére on atomic energy and the nuclear arms races. Ghiorso was basically Seaborg’s super-lackey— Ghiorso designed the hardware that ran some of the most sophisticated nuclear experiments of the twentieth century, and yet never got more than a bachelor’s degree (Ghiorso thought academic credentials were stuffy and refused to submit to more schooling). And long after Seaborg had left his lab for Kennedy’s Camelot, Ghiorso was still tinkering away back at the University of California at Berkeley, designing new experiments, wiring new detectors, and above all inking in new boxes on the periodic table. During Ghiorso’s prime Berkeley was the greatest element-making machine the world ever saw. He co-discovered every element between 95 and 106, and his team started the trend of naming new elements after great scientists—the likes of curium (element 96), einsteinium (99), fermium (100), mendelevium (101), and so on, all the way up to element 106—with which he honored the man who gave him his start in science, by naming it "seaborgium."
Sadly, by the 1980s, the Berkeley lab where Ghiorso worked had fallen on hard times, and had been surpassed by their Cold War rivals, labs in Russia and Germany. Ghiorso went into semi-retirement—only to be lured out again in the late 1990s, when a renaissance took place under a Ghiorso protégée named Victor Ninov. (“He’s as good as a young Al Ghiorso,” Ghiorso liked to say.) With Ninov running the hardware now and Ghiorso helping from the sidelines, the Berkeley team discovered their first new elements in two decade, 116 and 118. Grand announcements were made—Berkeley was back!—and in all the excitement, there were whispers of naming 118 after Ghiorso. The excitement died quickly. After checking their data more closely, the Berkeley scientists noticed something amiss. Then, with an ever-sickening feeling, they dug further, and watched the claims fall apart completely. A university investigation soon concluded that the over-ambitious Ninov—the new Ghiorso—was a fraud. He’d made up his data, the report said: the elements had never existed. Beyond losing the elements, the incident ruined the one real asset the Berkeley team had left, its reputation. Ghiorso faded back into retirement, and although he survived until just this past December 26, when he died from complications due to a heart attack, his heart had actually been broken many years before, when the claim for the fraudulent elements came to light.
I’d like to end with a modest proposal. Ghiorso can’t win a Nobel Prize anymore—only the living can. But scientists on three continents continue to build on Ghiorso’s work, trying to create new elements. The latest was added just this past spring, number 117, and more new elements will almost certainly be coming. So I’m appealing to scientists’ sense of honor in suggesting that, in lieu of the many, many obituaries that Albert Ghiorso missed, he should get—no matter who discovers it, in what country—one of the new elements named after him. Literature is news that stays news, and along those lines the netherland of the periodic table is an obituary page that stays fresh—populated by the names of scientists whose work and lives deserve contemplation. Here’s to ghiorsium.
Posted by Sam Kean at 12:50 AM | Permalink