The Element Named After Berkeley

Hint: It's not stanfordium, oxfordium, or caltechium.
By Barry Bergman

Glenn Seaborg was born too late to have spawned Cal’s spirit cry. It’s coincidence, surely, that his name is an anagram for “Go Bears!” And, although he was definitely a Bears fan and was Chancellor when Cal last made it to the Rose Bowl in 1959, he was never in Oski’s league as a campus celebrity. While others led rallies, he had to settle for spearheading decades of trailblazing nuclear science, endowing UC Berkeley with bragging rights to the discovery of a record 16 new elements.

Now, though, the 1951 Nobelist is making a bid to play in the social media space. One of the elements he co-created, berkelium, has lately acquired a kind of iconic status—the digital kind, that is, that comes from being a Twitter avatar or Facebook chiclet. Twenty years after the great man’s death, the campus has made a blue-and-gold Bk, the chemical symbol for element 97, the icon for its social media presence.

Berkelium does have one direct application. It serves as a chemical target, material that scientists can bombard with subatomic particles to create other radioactive
substances.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. And perhaps, while contemplating the Berkeley mobile app on your phone or tablet, you’ve paused to wonder: What is berkelium, anyway?

Meet Rebecca Abergel, one of the rare scientists who have actually worked with the stuff.

“If you tell me you want to come and take a picture, I’ll tell you I can show you a picture of an empty glass vial. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Abergel, a Berkeley assistant professor of nuclear engineering. The Heavy Element Research Laboratory she heads at the Berkeley Lab is one of a select few authorized by the Department of Energy to get berkelium from Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the only lab in the United States that produces it. Deliveries weigh in at a mere 50 micrograms.

“It’s not a quantity that you can actually look at,” she says. “It doesn’t look like a piece of metal. It’s a kind of residue at the bottom of a flask or a vial; you can barely see there is something there.”

Instead, she and her team study it by monitoring its radioactivity and, with the aid of spectroscopy, by observing how its properties change in solution with other molecules.

Berkelium was synthesized in 1949 by Seaborg and his colleagues Stanley Thompson and Albert Ghiorso. Born at the University and named for the city, it’s typically described as a radioactive, silvery metal with no practical application. The isotope Abergel works with is berkelium 249, which has a half-life of nearly a year. “With berkelium, we worry about one of its decay products, californium 249, because that emits neutrons,” she says. The dangers of berkelium itself, she adds, are manageable.

“When you’re done working, you look for radioactivity basically everywhere—on yourself, on your shoes, on the bench—so we don’t track contamination outside,” she says. “It’s not like in the movies, but we have things where we will check our hands and feet.”

And berkelium does have one direct application. It serves as a chemical target, material that scientists can bombard with subatomic particles to create other radioactive substances. That’s the process by which Seaborg and company, using the cyclotron invented by Ernest O. Lawrence, produced all those unstable elements at the deep end of the periodic table.

“We saw Bk as an abbreviation that we thought was kind of unique to Berkeley,” says Kapoor, who notes that it’s common to spot students in T-shirts and hoodies featuring the two-letter legend.

“I think we’re always going back to this quest for fundamental understanding of what the elements do,” Abergel says. “By understanding berkelium, maybe we’ll understand something about plutonium, and that will be applicable to nuclear power generation. Or we’ll understand something about actinium, and that will be important for cancer treatment.”

Beyond the fundamental chemistry, she’s also looking for ways to remove radioactive contaminants from living organisms and the environment—in the wake of a nuclear attack, for example, or after an explosion at a power plant—by better understanding how heavy elements interact with other chemical structures.

“I’m not only doing this for the beauty of science,” she says.

And neither, it’s fair to say, are those who hope to make Bk stand not just for element 97, but for the campus itself. Abergel may deal with amounts of berkelium too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the beauty of Bk as a digital icon is precisely that it can be seen.

“It was primarily a graphic consideration,” explains Ram Kapoor, the campus’s chief marketing officer. The official “Berkeley” wordmark was too long to be read on a cell phone app, and the campus seal at that size was all but indistinguishable from any other. The Cal script logo is reserved, per branding guidelines, chiefly for Athletics.

“We saw Bk as an abbreviation that we thought was kind of unique to Berkeley,” says Kapoor, who notes that it’s common to spot students in T-shirts and hoodies featuring the two-letter legend. The chemical symbol, he adds, was “an icon that we felt we could own.” His branding team rolled it out in earnest on Cal Day in April.

Abergel, who earned her Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2006, has no objections to UC Berkelium.

“There were 16 elements discovered here. No other institution has ever matched that,” she says. “We do state-of-the-art science and education—you know, look at Seaborg’s legacy, the Lawrence Hall of Science, all the community outreach the campus does, the international recognition of the University and the Lab—it’s a symbol of recognition of the institution, I think.”

And a symbol, too, of the special chemistry that makes Berkeley, um, Berkeley. Seaborg!

For more information, check out our “dummy’s guide to the periodic table” here.

From the Fall 2019 issue of California.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons // Collage by Leah Worthington
Share this article:
Google+ Reddit

Add new comment