Albert Ghiorso: Biography, Elements Discovered & Death

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Albert Ghiorso was an American scientist whose contributions include work on the Manhattan Project and the discovery of twelve elements. In this lesson learn about his life, work and research.

A Scientist and World Record Holder

Americium. Californium. Nobelium. Curium. Do these sound like made-up words to you? Well, they're real! They are all elements on the periodic table that were either discovered or co-discovered by scientist Albert Ghiorso.

Albert Ghiorso was a 20th-century American scientist who discovered twelve radioactive elements - more elements than any other person! Let's learn about his life, education and major discoveries.

Early Education and Career

Albert Ghiorso was born on July 15, 1915 in California. He spent much of his life there and graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in electrical engineering in 1937 from the University of California, Berkley.

Albert Ghiorso, 1915 - 2010
albert ghiorso

After graduating, Ghiorso took a job with Cyclotron Specialties Company, which supplied radiation detectors for the government. It was here that he built the first Geiger counter, used commercially to detect radiation.

It was because of this that Ghiorso caught the attention of nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg. This connection was extremely important, and we will see Seaborg's name come up throughout Ghiorso's life.

Throughout his career, Ghiorso designed many accelerators and detectors that were used to produce and identify heavy radioactive elements. These elements had previously been difficult to discover because of their short life.

World War II and the Manhattan Project

In 1941, when the United States became involved in World War II, Ghiorso decided to leave his career as a scientist to join the Navy. He reached out to Seaborg to ask for a reference, but Seaborg had another idea. The nuclear scientist asked Ghiorso to come work at Metallurgical Lab instead.

This was the location of the Manhattan Project, which worked on the research and development of nuclear weapons. Ghiorso began work on this in 1942 and continued for three years.

It was at this job that he made his first instruments used to detect radiation associated with nuclear decay and spontaneous fission. These instruments allowed him to discover the first two of twelve elements he would discover over the course of his life--americium (element 95) and curium (element 96). He named these elements after America and in honor of Marie Curie.

More Discoveries

After the war, Ghiorso returned to Berkley Lab, where he would stay until retirement. Working with Seaborg, the team developed new detectors used to isolate and characterize elements. They use a sixty-inch Crocker cyclotron to discover elements through helium bombardment.

Between 1945 and 1955 they discover berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium and mendelevium. Can you determine what some of these are named after?

Additionally, using their knowledge and radiation measurement tools, the team concluded that the Soviets did their first nuclear test on August 29, 1949. This was a vital discovery during the Cold War Era!

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