Today, we let freedom trickle through our fingers.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I first heard Glenn Seaborg
talk at the University of Washington in 1952. He'd
won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry the year before.
He was only 40. A few years later, when I studied
at Berkeley, he was the chancellor there.
All the while his team discovered new elements --
berkelium, californium, americium. He worked his
way through the American atlas and then through the
gallery of scientific history -- einsteinium,
fermium, mendelevium, and (why not!) nobelium.
In 1961, JFK named Seaborg head of the Atomic
Energy Commission -- the AEC. He served for 10
years. Now, just past his 82nd birthday, he tells a
chilling tale: He'd kept a diary since his teens.
When he left the AEC, he asked security people to
clear the relevant parts. They went through it,
deleted an item or two, and said, "Take it with
you." Since it wasn't classified, they gave no
written clearance. Seaborg made one copy.
In 1983, the AEC historian asked to borrow the
copy. He was writing the history of Seaborg's term.
Seaborg said, "Sure. Just get it back to me in
three weeks." The historian agreed.
Then the fun began. Three weeks passed; no diary.
Three months -- a year and a half. No diary, no
explanation. The government finally told him his
diary had secret material in it. When they told him
to hand over the other copy, Seaborg objected. They
compromised. Security people came to his house to
sanitize the diary.
They made 162 deletions. Then Seaborg learned that
other security people had made twice as many
deletions in the copy, and they'd held out another
530 items for further consideration.
The two sets of excisions weren't even consistent
with each other, but now the security people had
the bit in their teeth. Next they ordered Seaborg's
copy removed to Livermore Lab, where a team could
go over it. This time some ten people worked on it
for weeks. They returned it with a thousand items
The excised material included things Seaborg had
published in books -- stuff that was public in many
other forms as well. And Seaborg asks: How could an
organization that began with an enlightened sense
of public openness have come to this? He believes
that we let a blind bureaucratic notion of security
grow up in government, quietly and mindlessly,
during the 1980s.
There's a moral fable for us in this. For this is
how we let our freedoms die -- quietly and
unnoticed. Today, the government assures Seaborg
that they hold one clean copy of the entire
document. But they hold it in secret. He might yet
live to see historians using his carefully kept
records. But that is, by now -- unlikely.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Seaborg, G.T., Secrecy Runs Amok,
Science, Vol. 264, 3 June, 1994, pp.
I did this episode in 1994. Glen Seaborg died on
Feb. 15, 1999. (You may read his obituary at:
I am grateful to the late Dr. Seaborg for his
counsel on this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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