Of Presidents and Nobels

If Barack Obama confirms that Steven Chu is to become the new Energy Secretary (something that is expected, next week), the Lawrence Berkeley lab chief will become the first individual to assume a Cabinet position while already in possession of a Nobel Prize. So noted a Science Progress blog, yesterday. (Henry Kissinger, who became Secretary of State under Richard Nixon in 1973, won a Nobel Peace Prize — but that was months after becoming a Cabinet officer.)

SEABORG & HUMPHREY Science Service board chairman Glenn Seaborg (left) speaks with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. They were featured dignitaries at a Science Service event — the Science Talent Search dinner on March 2, 1967, in Washington, D.C.

What that blog, yesterday, failed to point out is that much of the research enterprise that Chu is expected to lead was, in fact, commanded 48 years earlier by another Lawrence Berkeley scientist — one who similarly possessed a Nobel Prize in physics.

From 1961 to 1971, Glenn Seaborg ran the federal government’s energy-research programs. Back then, there was no Energy Department. Seaborg instead directed the non-Cabinet-level Atomic Energy Commission.

This behemoth post-war research agency ran the nation’s big national labs: Argonne, Brookhaven, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, Sandia, and a few other special-purpose facilities. Begun to advance nuclear weaponry — and soon after, the peaceful uses of nuclear power — these facilities quickly morphed into all-purpose engines of science performing ground-breaking research on physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, materials science, and even environmental science. These workhorse labs continue to carry out the bulk of the activities that Chu is being tapped to command.

Seaborg had entered the history books at least a decade before the president phoned him with a personal request that he leave Berkeley to head the AEC. The nuclear chemist that John Kennedy called upon had shared his 1951 Nobel for research on artificially creating elements bigger than uranium. His team created a broad host of such transuranics, starting with plutonium (1940). Others would add plenty more. My fave is the short-lived radioactive element 106, also known as seaborgium.

An unassuming giant in science, “nine presidents sought his advice,” according to a biography of Seaborg on the LBL website. He was a big man in our shop as well (and I’m not referring to his gangly 6’3” stature). For 29 years — beginning while he was still AEC chairman, and ending in 1995 — Seaborg chaired the board of Science Service Inc. (which is the old name for Society for Science & the Public, Science News’ parent organization).

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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