The Almost-First Photo of Plutonium (October 1946)

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post

Plutonium 1946 _2__0001While writing a post for the bookstore section of this blog on Seaborg’s “Transuranium Elements” article that appeared in Science in October 1946 I was struck by the home-made quality of one of the illustrations for the periodic table. Mainly I was curious to see the representation of the actinides (which at this point included up to Curium (synthesized in 1944) and was still three years away from Berkelium (synthesized in 1949). And since I have been on a small mission to define terms I looked up the discovery of actinium, which turns out to be a little complicated, but was perhaps first discovered by André-Louis Debierne  in 18991.  This distraction led immediately to another–a photo of a speck of plutonium (hydroxide) in a capillary tube (even at 40x it appears as a tiny white cloudy splotch).  Since plutonium after a certain date was not discussed for obvious security reasons in the Physical Review and  other journals (a date that I keep forgetting but I believe was in late 1940 when the nuclear/explosive aspect of Pu-239 was discovered), I wondered about when the first photo of plutonium appeared, anywhere..and if this was it.  But no, it turned out not to be, though it was close.  The “first” award seems to go to Fritz Goro (1901-1986), the great science photographer for LIFE magazine, who made an image for July 27, 1946, some three months before the Seaborg article appeared and just over a year after the Nagasaki bomb. In any event, I reprint the Science photo (left).


1. André Louis Debierne  (1899). “Sur un nouvelle matière radio-active”. Comptes rendus  129: 593–595.

By: JF Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries

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