Albert Ghiorso, Famed Physicist, Dies at 95

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Albert Ghiorso, a world-famous and highly esteemed Berkeley nuclear physicist, died at his home on Dec. 26 from heart complications following a fall. He was 95.

In his more than 40-year career at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Ghiorso co-discovered 12 elements and also photographed the first skylark seen in California.

Ghiorso's family home in Alameda was just a short walk from the Oakland International Airport. There, below the thunderous planes flawlessly taking off and landing, began Ghiorso's love for scientific discovery.

"As a kid, Albert would walk over and watch the airplanes come and go," said close friend and colleague Robert Schmieder, who worked with Ghiorso at Berkeley Lab for 40 years and is now writing his biography. "I think he became fascinated with the technology that was necessary to make airplanes fly."

In high school, Ghiorso's fixation turned to radios, and he soon found that he not only understood how radio signals worked but could design the circuit for a radio. In fact, the radio he designed and built was, according to his own notes at least, better than a military radio.

When he graduated from UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering in 1937, Ghiorso did not have immediate success obtaining a job. But his unemployment was in part due to his own idea of the right job for him.

"He was, surprisingly for a young man his age, competent and technically capable," Schmieder said. "He knew he was smart and he knew he was capable of solving difficult problems, so the idea of having a mundane job just didn't interest him a bit."

Ghiorso joined a hand radio company, which collaborated with Berkeley Lab's radiation laboratory. Known for his electrical skills, he was summoned to the lab one day to circuit an intercom system between two secretaries, one of whom later became his wife.

Ghiorso's invention of the commercial Geiger counter - a device that detects high-energy particles emitted by decaying radioactive material - attracted the attention of important scientists at the Berkeley Lab, including Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who discovered the first chemical elements known to be heavier than uranium.

In 1942, the best nuclear physicists in the United States were working on the atom bomb. Seaborg invited Ghiorso to join him in Chicago to add his mind to the Manhattan Project. There, he co-discovered two elements of the periodic table: Americium and Curium. And for the next 30 years, until 1974, Ghiorso would on average discover one element every three years, including Berkelium and Californium.

Beyond the lab, he was a bird-watcher, looking particularly for rare birds like the skylark that would sometimes temporarily settle in California, and went to every concert he could with his wife. But ultimately, the lab was his passion.

"The intensity of engaging him (about scientific problems) in conversation gave people the feeling that he was a magic man," Schmieder said. "He glows in the dark - he glows in the daytime, and if you stand next to this man, you too will shine a little bit. He was endeared to the people who knew him and inspired by the people who worked around him. When I would come to work every day I was energized. I was going to a place where important things happen."

Ghiorso is survived by his son and engineer at the Berkeley Lab, William Belt Ghiorso, and his daughter, Kristine Pixton, an artist and educational software designer in New York.


Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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