By Jeff Cruzan, US math instructor
We still don’t know all there is to know about chemistry, and we were reminded of that in early January as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) confirmed that the last four new elements of the seventh row of the periodic table had been discovered (well, created, really).
On this momentous occasion, I’m reminded of a story I often share with my students: When I was finishing graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, I had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time and serve as the science and technical advisor for Disney’s remake of the movie Flubber, starring Robin Williams. I worked with the film crew, producers and actors for about four months on Treasure Island in San Francisco. In the long intervals between scenes in which Williams mimed working with the metastable plasticky goo (added later through the magic of computer graphics), I wrote parts of my Ph.D. thesis.
My job was to build laboratory sets, make things bubble and spew, and advise Mr. Williams and the director, Les Mayfield, on how the script might sound more like authentic science, complete fantasy though it was. When my students watch the film, they recognize my handwriting on the many blackboards filled with science-y scrawl.
One gag in the film was that the professor (Williams) decides that the way to control the
highly unstable Flubber, to turn it into useful energy (to make a flying car!), is by exposing it to gamma rays from a radioactive isotope. I was asked which radioactive element to use (well, fake use), and that gave me an idea.
I told the art director about Professor Glenn Seaborg, discoverer of ten elements heavier than uranium, including plutonium. Professor Seaborg was then 85, and had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work. The scientific community – this was 1996 – was having a row with the IUPAC because there was strong sentiment to name element 106, the last of Seaborg’s discoveries “Seaborgium (Sg),” but the governing body said they couldn’t do it because an element had never been named after a living person.
It seemed pretty clear at the time that the community of chemists and physicists, an independent-minded lot who wanted to honor Seaborg while he was alive, would eventually win, and by the time we were filming Flubber, there seemed to be a lot of momentum toward that. So I proposed to the film crew that we call our isotope Seaborgium and give it the symbol Sg. What’s wrong with a little harmless science fiction? The art department made stickers and to this day you can watch the movie and see the professor uncover a glowing green isotope labeled “Sg ” for Seaborgium, element number 106.
But that’s not the cool part. Before we went ahead with the project, we felt that Professor Seaborg should have a say in the matter, so I went up the hill to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab to chat with him. He thought it was a great idea and he loved that it was Disney’s project. He’d actually worked personally with Walt Disney as a science advisor on the animated educational cartoon, “Our Friend the Atom” in 1956. We decided to invite him to the set for a visit, and we set a date.
Leading up to his visit, actors (Williams would win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting the following year, and costar Marcia Gay Harden would later win one for Pollack), producers, directors and crew members flooded me with questions about ‘the scientist.’ “What’s he like?” “Is he intimidating?” “He really won the Nobel Prize?” The Hollywood crowd was starstruck with the Professor, and none more than Robin Williams, a big fan of science who once told me he wanted to play Einstein in a film some day.
We sent a car and brought Professor Seaborg and his assistant to the set on Treasure Island. He recognized the giant buildings as part of the 1939 World’s fair, and for about an hour, with a crowd amassed around him on a giant soundstage and on catwalks above him, he regaled us with stories about having been science advisor to three presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), having worked with Disney, and how he won the Nobel. It was one of those magical times that just won’t ever be reproduced, and I’m grateful to have witnessed it and to have met Seaborg.
Seaborg passed away in 1999, but I think he’d be applauding the completion of the last row of the periodic table as a great accomplishment in science.
What’s next for the periodic table? These big elements have to be made in something called a cyclotron, and after they’re made, they don’t last too long before the competition between the attractive forces that hold the nuclei together and the repulsive forces that try to push them apart become imbalanced and the atoms fall apart into smaller ones. Sometimes that happens in just a few thousandths of a second. But some theories (Seaborg was one proponent) suggest that as we go bigger, there might just be “islands of stability” where we create new elements that are much more stable and last longer. Very Star Trekky. Dilithium crystals, anyone?
So to our students I say, and I think the Professor would agree, we don’t know nearly all there is to know about science, and that’s the exciting part. Get out there and discover!