Scientific recognition puts professor in his element

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VISITORS to the University of California at Berkeley should not be surprised to encounter the Nobel prize-winning scientist, Glenn Seaborg, wandering around in an unusually cheerful mood. He may even be humming the classic Tom Lehrer song, to the tune of 'A Modern Major-General'.

'There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, / And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium . . . / These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, / And there may be many others but they haven't been discarvered.'

For the 81-year-old professor can now reflect that Lehrer's lyrics would read very differently, were they to be written today. They would, among other things, have to include reference to the newly named 106th element: seaborgium. Dr Seaborg has become the first scientist to give his name to an element in his lifetime. It is not as if he needs the extra renown - he was a prime mover in the discovery of plutonium, a key component for atomic bombs and some nuclear power plants. But, critically, the title acknowledges that he and his team did indeed discover 106.

This was by no means a foregone conclusion. Element 106 was created at Berkeley 20 years ago, but remained nameless because a team of Soviet scientists also claimed to have made it. For almost 20 years neither group could reproduce its discovery, largely because the highly mercurial element disappered within seconds.

But last autumn eight scientists at Berkeley successfully reproduced it, clinching their right to name it and - after rejecting Newton and the physicist Luis Alvarez - have settled on Dr Seaborg. Dr Seaborg's team, at Berkeley and at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, was at the forefront of creating heavy elements since the 1940s, and has contributed some other unusual names to science. For example: berkelium, californium, einsteinium, nobelium. Nor have the Germans made the periodic table any more lyrical. When they discovered element 107, they named it nielsbohrium, after the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. But Dr Seaborg appears delighted, all the same: 'It is a great honour,' he said.