Stan Thompson

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Stan Thompson

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An explanation and speculation by the Webmaster

I learned almost simultaneously of the extraordinary careers of Stan Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  It was forty years ago on a warm Spring night. To borrow from Vonnegut, I suppose it would be fair to say that Vonnegut, Thompson and I and fell into the same karass that evening. I read Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle the next day and knew that his and my lives were linked if by nothing else but book royalties Vonnegut would collect from my purchases over the years. In Thompson's case, it wasn't until I reached the age he was when I first heard his name in 1966 that I was moved to find out more about him.  It didn't take long to became interested in him or to become as fond of Thompson as I was of Vonnegut. This site is the result. It is funny how life is (or "busy, busy, busy" as Vonnegut observed in Cat's Cradle).

Once I began to learn about his accomplishments in earnest, Thompson's story became truly compelling: He grew up in pre-War Southern California.  He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area just the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were being completed.  His life took a most amazing turn when his friend from high school and college roommate, Glenn Seaborg, became the scientist responsible for devising the process to purify plutonium.  Seaborg, given all the money and Ph.D.'s in the world, couldn't get the job done.  He called on the chemist he respected most and the man he trusted most to help him.  The man was Stan Thompson.  Thompson performed brilliantly, without benefit of any advanced degrees in chemistry.  He was just extraordinarily creative and intelligent.  He also worked very hard. Based on Thompson's work with 20 millionths of a gram of plutonium, the Government built three 800-foot-long reinforced concrete buildings (with solid walls, ceilings and floors that were four feet thick) to use his scaled up process.  He scaled his process up and was there at Hanford running the labs when the plutonium for the first atomic bomb was made. It was a goddamn dangerous place to be. It probably cost him a quarter Century more of life (born the same year as his friend Glenn Seaborg, he died 24 years sooner than Seaborg, of Leukemia, in 1976).  We forget today the urgency with which we pursued the ability to split the atom for world power. It was a very good bet that whoever mastered plutonium first was going to master the world.  In fact, that was exactly what happened.

It is a shame that Thompson didn't live long enough to see the that the carrot of the Marshall Plan has become as powerful a stabilizing force as the atomic stick we had to worry about keeping for all these years. The fact that world peace has broken out as we enter a new millennium wouldn't have been possible without our nuclear superiority from the very beginning of atomic weaponry. For all the anxiety of assured mutual annihilation, the certainty of a world war in Europe every thirty years was finally avoided. Miraculously, the violent caucasions of Europe were finally contained and thus, Pax Economica.

Only the War years found Thompson's career in nuclear weaponry.  He returned to Berkeley to pursue basic research and continued to separate the actinides from one another.  As a result, he was the man most responsible for identifying, describing and isolating most of the actinide series of elements. His two most notable elements (from a Cal graduate's point of view) were Berkelium and Californium.  Thompson was the man most responsible for naming them, too.

As remarkable as Thompson's story is, it is made even more interesting by the  possibility of a betrayal of Shakespearian proportions by his old friend, Glenn Seaborg.  Seaborg accepted in his own name the Nobel Prize that Thompson won. I have made available on this web site the primary material from which I drew my inferences and I encourage the visitor to decide for himself or herself as to who really deserved to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Edwin McMillan in 1951.  In the meantime.

What follows below is a passage Glenn Seaborg never wrote and never spoke (because they were written by me after his death). Had Glenn Seaborg written something similar and used the prestige of his Nobel Prize to secure a page in Science or Nature to publish it, this web site would not have been necessary: 

 "I could talk Chemistry; Stan Thompson could do chemistry. I could write convincing reviews about chemistry I had never done; Stan Thompson could do chemistry no one had ever done. I could write about theoretical breakthroughs, Stan could conceive of theoretical breakthroughs. I could write about all the chemistry Stan could do, and Stan could do all the chemistry I could write about. I could teach bureaucrats and army generals how to fund our chemistry; Stan could teach engineers and scientists how to do our chemistry. We had known each other since early adolescence and shared many interests personally and professionally. When we found ourselves at exactly the right place at exactly the right moment in history, we  changed the world together. In war, we combined our talents to produce fissile material that made Nobel's dynamite pale by comparison. We ended the Second World War earlier than anyone had expected. The synthetic element that only we were able to isolate proved to be the foundation for a  Pax Americana that is now in its 57th year.  Stan and I returned to the university where we filled in the actinide series of elements--elements whose nuclear and chemical characteristics, only we had the creativity and technology to identify. For our work, we were awarded the Nobel Prize with Edwin McMillan in 1951. Stan Thompson and I were the youngest men to ever receive the award. The world and the Periodic Table of the Elements will never be the same for our brief but intense nine-year collaboration in the cause of freedom and the advancement of pure science.


"I have but three regrets in my lifetime of dealings with Stanley G. Thompson:


"1.       The first regret is that I didn’t insist on paying for any gasoline, even once, over the four years in which we commuted together in his car from our home in South Gate to UCLA —a distance of some 25 miles in each direction. 

"2.      The second regret is that I cheated Stan Thompson in every game of golf we ever played—thus unfairly wining every bet—including the widely publicized bets for those spirited rounds of golf we played while working together in Chicago at the Met Lab. 

"3.      The final regret is that I accepted the Nobel Prize with Edwin McMillan as if it were being awarded only to him and me. The fact is, the half of the Prize that I accepted was as much Stan's as mine because it was awarded for a series of accomplishments that were the result of our shared efforts. Was only one of us was to share the Nobel Prize with Edwin McMillan for those accomplishments, it should have been Stanley G. Thompson and not Glenn T. Seaborg.

As a gentleman and a scholar, I must confess I have only poetic license to support the first two regrets Professor Seaborg might have had. However, as a sentient human being with over sixty years experience on this planet, I am certain that anyone who would steal the Nobel Prize from his oldest and closest friend would consider it a duty to cheat at golf and sponge free rides whenever the opportunity arose.


P.S. If you want more impassioned opinion and even some substantiation, click here


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The Internet is a wonderful vanity press. It is a bully pulpit that costs the author of a website almost nothing. Therefore, it falls on the reader to exercise increased vigilence while browsing websites because the the layers of "editors" and "publishers" have been removed from the information transfer process and so that anybody can say most anything without regard for the facts or truth. This website is no exception. For that reason, I have tried to provide copies of enough of the original materials so that the reader can make his or her own interpretations of the source documents that led me to the conclusions expressed here. 

Last Edited 07/21/15 --Comments to Webmaster