In His Element : Seaborgium Is Named for One of Its Discoverers, Glenn Seaborg


Twenty years after its creation in a Berkeley laboratory, the 106th known element has finally received a name--seaborgium, after Glenn T. Seaborg, the Berkeley Nobel laureate who helped make it and nine other heavy elements.

It is the first time an element has been named after a living person.

Seaborg, 81, is a former chancellor of UC Berkeley and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy) under Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. He burst into prominence in 1941 when he was the prime mover in the discovery of plutonium, the radioactive element that is best known as a key component of atomic bombs.

His team subsequently discovered a series of so-called transuranium elements, which are heavier than uranium, the heaviest naturally occurring element. These elements are too short-lived to be found in nature and must be created in nuclear accelerators by firing beams of particles and nuclei at heavy elements such as uranium.


Seaborg’s team at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was at the forefront in creating elements from the 1940s through the 1960s, including neptunium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and the element known for 20 years simply as element 106.

Although most of the newly discovered elements are too fleeting for practical applications, plutonium is used as a fuel in some nuclear power plants and americium is used in fire detectors. All their discoveries have revealed insights into the nature of matter.

Seaborg received the 1951 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the discoveries.

Names for new elements are generally provided by the element’s discoverers, but element 106 was claimed by both the California group and a Russian team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna. For 20 years, neither team was able to reproduce their discovery, in large part because element 106 is extremely mercurial, disappearing from physicists’ detectors in a few seconds.

Finally, last fall, a team headed by physicists Ken Gregorich and Darlene Hoffman at Berkeley succeeded in once more producing it, nailing down Berkeley’s claim for its discovery and at last freeing the group to name it.

The eight-member team discussed naming the element after either Sir Isaac Newton or the late Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez, who played a key role in formulating the theory that dinosaurs were killed off by the impact of a comet.

However, the other seven members recently met in Seaborg’s absence and decided to name it after him, he said. “This is an extraordinary honor for me. Future students of chemistry, in learning about the periodic table, may have reason to ask why the element was named for me, and thereby learn more about my work,” he said.


The new name was announced at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.

Since Berkeley’s last discovery in 1974, the creation of new elements has been led by a team in Darmstadt, Germany, which has discovered elements 107, 108 and 109. They have been named nielsbohrium (for the Finnish physicist), hassia (for the German state of Hesse) and meitnerium (for the German fission pioneer Lise Meitner).