from the publisher:
Glenn T. Seaborg won a Nobel Prize before he was forty. He helped to produce the material that makes atomic bombs explode, and discovered plutonium and the isotopes used to treat millions of cancer patients. He ran the University of California at Berkeley and advised nine U.S. presidents. Here is his autobiography -- the extraordinary story of a modest Swedish American who never strayed from his strong basic commitments throughout an illustrious career that brought him well-deserved national and international fame.
Seaborg's story begins in Michigan in 1912 with his Scandinavian parents, but shifts quickly to California, where he got himself an education he didn't think he could afford during the dark days of the Depression. During World War II, the young Berkeley-trained chemist led the Manhattan Project group that devised the chemical extraction processes producing plutonium 239. Seaborg's assessment of the long-term consequences of this work is especially important.
Seaborg also recounts the postwar drama of his scientific discoveries, notably his pioneering work on the many transuranium elements he co-discovered at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley -- work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1951. Then, as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under President Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, Seaborg not only led the vast federal agency during difficult years but fought for a nuclear test ban treaty and argued in favor of the peaceful use of international control of atomic energy.
Seaborg's later years were marked by equal distinction and authority. He was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley in his forties, and then, decades later, he was the guiding spirit behind the epoch-making report on America's crisis in education, "A Nation at Risk," written at the behest of President Reagan. He was a constant wise presence in the making of important policy on science and public affairs, on science education, and on the many peaceful uses of atomic energy. His book concludes with an authoritative assessment of the implausibility of "Star Wars" and a national missile defense, and with an impassioned "Letter to a Young Scientist" about the joyous rewards of a career in science. His is the riveting account of a life like no other -- a model of the best in our nation.
Eric Seaborg, a freelance writer, worked with his father on the preparation of this book and completed it after professor Seaborg's death in February 1999.
"In Glenn Seaborg, great gifts were matched with great opportunities. He discovered plutonium, helped build the first atomic bombs, and then joined other scientists in trying to control the weapons they has created. His gift for numbers was matched with a gift for narrative: few memoirs have more to tell us about the volatile mix of science and politics in the twentieth century than Adventures in the Atomic Age." --Thomas Powers, author of Heisenberg's BombThe following is an excerpt from the book Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington by Glenn T. Seaborg with Eric Seaborg.
A MICHIGAN BOYHOOD
Congressional hearing rooms are arranged to mimic a courtroom, with the members of Congress looking down like judges from high wooden benches. The arrangement leaves no doubt as to who is in charge. I found myself looking up at these platforms one day in the 1960s. As chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, I'd been summoned to explain to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy why budget cuts were forcing the agency to lay off machinists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The laboratory was a major employer in Tennessee, and I'd enjoyed generally cordial relations with Senator Albert Gore Sr. (whose son would grow up to become Vice President). But faced with the prospect of jobless constituents, the senator was determined to do what he could to defend them. He grilled me about the reasons for the layoffs and our choice of whom to lay off, finally growling, "Dr. Seaborg, just what do you have against machinists?"
It was the best question I could have hoped for. "Senator, I don't have anything against machinists," I responded. "As a matter of fact, my father was a machinist." After that sank in, I continued, "And my grand-father was a machinist . . . and my great-grandfather was a machinist." I looked up at him. "And if I'd had any talent for it, I would have been a machinist myself."
Everyone in the room broke into laughter, including Senator Gore. The laughter broke the tension, and the hearing soon ended. Gore's question, though, brought into focus a thought I've long had about the relationship between my path as a scientist and my forebears' paths as machinists. To be a creative machinist was as close to being a scientist as their restricted worlds would allow, and they laid the groundwork that allowed me the good fortune of a world with broader horizons.
My great-grandfather was the master mechanic at the ironworks in Hällefors, Sweden. He was the first to carry the name Sjöberg, abandoning the traditional Swedish patronymic of Olsson.
His son, Johan Erik Sjöberg, also became a machinist at Hällefors before leaving for America. Nineteenth-century Sweden's population boom, coupled with recurring hard times, fueled waves of migration -- only Ireland sent a higher proportion of her people to the United States. To escape the hardships brought on by a series of crop failures, Johan set sail in 1867 at the age of twenty-three.
My father told me the story of this trip. The cheapest tickets were in steerage, belowdecks and near the rudder, a rough place to ride. When the ocean grew turbulent, the vomit of seasick passengers lubricated the deck and the luggage would slide around with the rolling of the ship. Johan would stretch out his legs to keep from being crushed against the wall.
As far as we know, it was an immigration official at Ellis Island who Anglicized his name to Seaborg. Like many of his countrymen, he headed for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the climate was reminiscent of his homeland's and his skills were in demand at the iron mines. At the Cleveland Cliffs Mining Company, in the little town of Ishpeming, he built a reputation as a fabulous machinist.
He and his family knew so little of this new land that his mother wrote, asking, "We wonder if they celebrate Christmas in America." Johan wrote home in amazement at the country he found, where if his employer didn't give him a raise he could find a job somewhere else, because "you don't have to kowtow to anyone" and people were independent: "The railroad here goes in all directions, so we can go wherever we want to. People here have no more furniture than they can take in two or three horseloads to the station, and they can travel wherever they want." And you could buy an insurance policy that the company would pay off even if you died a day later. "You might not believe this, but I know it is the truth. A man here died the year after he was insured, and his wife got the money right away."
Johan saved enough money to bring his mother, three sisters, and two brothers to this land of opportunity. He married a twenty-two-year-old Swedish immigrant, Charlotta Wilhelmina Johnson, whose family came to Ishpeming in 1869. Of their ten children, four died in infancy.
My father, Herman Theodore, who was called Ted, was the oldest surviving child of this union, and he became a foreman in the machine shop of the Cleveland Cliffs Company. He and his siblings all finished high school, quite an achievement for working-class people in that day. Johan died young, and it fell to my father to hold the family together, so his education ended after high school. My Uncle Henry received a teaching degree from Northern Michigan College and became a high school shop teacher on the recommendation of the mining company, with the understanding that his skills would be available to them to work on intricate problems; my Uncle Lawrence graduated from Michigan Tech with an engineering degree. This first American generation of Seaborgs made the most of their educational opportunities, and their investment paid off.
Ishpeming was an ethnic town, with groups of Finns, Italians, and Cousin Jacks (as we called the Cornish) in addition to Swedes, all holding on to their traditions and celebrations. At one of these festivals, a picnic on Midsummer Day, my father met Selma Erickson.
She'd immigrated four years earlier, at the age of seventeen, fleeing the proverbial wicked stepmother who treated her stepchildren like servants. Her uncle had already emigrated to America, and when he came back to Sweden for a visit, he suggested that she return to America with him. An inheritance from her mother gave her enough money to buy a ticket and still have ten dollars in her pocket. Immigrants needed forty dollars in cash for entry at Ellis Island, a requirement that her uncle circumvented by claiming she was his daughter. She lived with her uncle's family in Ishpeming, until hired by a well-to-do family as a live-in maid.
As she later told the story, my father pursued her at the Midsummer Day picnic, but she avoided him because he was drunk. Asked later why she had further dealings with him if she found his drunkenness distasteful, she said, "The Seaborgs had a reputation for being smart."
And that's how I came to be born in Ishpeming in 1912. My sister Jeanette filled out the family two years later. Jeanette and I learned Swedish before we learned English. My American-born father was perfectly bilingual, but my mother never lost her Swedish accent. Throughout their lives, they would move seamlessly between the two languages in conversation. Swedish so predominated in the neighborhood where we lived that when neighbors heard we'd be called Glenn and Jeanette, some asked my mother, "Are those names?" In fact, my mother never did get the hang of pronouncing the J in my sister's name, and she remained Yeanette.
But aside from these American names, Swedish customs prevailed in our home. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mother would cook a traditional Swedish smorgasbord, with pickled herring, lutfisk, saffron buns and bread made with glacéed fruits, gingersnaps cut into fanciful shapes, lingonberries, and a dessert of rice pudding topped with cinnamon, cream, and sugar.
My parents expressed pride in our Swedish heritage. We would hear about the accomplishments of people like Alfred Nobel and the monopolistic owner of a huge company, of whom my father observed, "Even the biggest crook in the world is a Swede."
Our family led a comfortable existence in a modest house, and my memories of Ishpeming are pleasant ones. We kept a pig in the backyard, at least during World War I. Sugar was rationed then, and you could buy it in proportion to the amount of cereal you bought. My parents bought the cereal and fed it to the pig -- that way my mother could have more sugar for her baking, and for her coffee kalas, a neighborhood club in which housewives would invite each other over and bake with a covert competitiveness.
On my first day of school, my mother took my hand and walked me down the street. As we passed each doorway, the lady of the house would ask, "Oh, is Glenn starting school today?" and my mother would respond with dignity that I was. I felt very proud, and I think it impressed on me the importance that my family placed on education more effectively than any other gesture. In school, however, I was too shy even to raise my hand to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom. My mother made arrangements with my teacher that allowed me to absent myself without asking.
When I was eight years old and wanted to earn spending money, I started caddying at the nearby country club's nine-hole golf course. The golfers would line us up to see if we were tall enough to keep the bag from dragging on the ground, and because of my height I was usually one of the first chosen. Caddies were paid twenty cents, or twenty-five by more affluent clients. An even better job was to open the gate to the country club. The drivers would toss you a penny or two, a nickel, even a dime, and you could make a dollar or more. The spot was so lucrative that sometimes we'd sleep out on the Friday night before a tournament to claim the job on Saturday morning.
One day, when I was seven, the Green Bay Packers came to town. It was their first year of existence and, representing the Indian Packing Company, they played our local Ishpeming town team of rugged iron miners. Curly Lambeau, their captain, coach, runner, and quarterback, later recalled: "The game at Ishpeming was an odd one. They had a tough team, and on our first three running plays, three of our men went out with broken bones. We never ran again -- we passed on every play and we beat them 33-0. It was that day we realized the value of the forward pass." Of course, in our isolated world we considered this newly invented forward pass close to cheating.
And indeed Ishpeming was an isolated world of its own. Its unpaved streets were tinged red from iron ore. A lone streetcar ran the three miles to the neighboring town of Negaunee, where it reversed and came back on the same track. A train ran the twelve or fourteen miles to Marquette, on Lake Superior. We read of the outside world in the Marquette Mining Journal and the Sunday Chicago Tribune. But in my ten years in Ishpeming, I never talked on a telephone or heard the word "radio." Santa Claus would spice our Christmas stockings with an orange, an exotic delicacy from far to the south.
In this company town, my parents owned our house, but Cleveland Cliffs owned the land it stood on. And that was leverage that the company used to keep workers in line. My father used to tell us that when he was young there'd been a person in town whom everyone called the Democrat, the only one who'd admit to being one in public, since the company expected you to vote Republican. If a foreman found it inconvenient to have too many crew members named Anderson, he might tell some of them to change their names, and they would. If you were injured, you were out of work and out of luck. Workmen's compensation was an idea of the future. And if your friend suffered an accident in the mine shaft, your pay was docked for the time you were away from your job helping him to the surface.