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book review | Adventures in the Atomic Age

Adventures in the Atomic Age
From Watts to Washington

By Glenn T. Seaborg with Eric Seaborg

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 2001; 0-374-29991-9


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.


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