Glenn Seaborg, Edwin McMillan and Me: A Between the Lines View of Berkeley’s Loss of Fermilab

Catherine Westfall, Michigan State University
Thursday, Mar 23, 11:00 AM - Women and Minorities in Science Lecture
NSCL Lecture Hall 1200

Abstract:  In my career as a historian, I wrote about one particularly sensitive subject: the choice of Weston, Illinois as the site for what came to be called Fermilab. This was a surprising and dismaying decision for many physicists, particularly those at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After all, following in the tradition of Ernest Lawrence, managers and a world-class group of accelerator builders obtained initial funding and created the first design for the facility. To add further insult and injury, the loss of this particle physics laboratory signaled the end of the era when Berkeley housed the world’s largest, most prestigious accelerators. When recently contemplating untold stories I would like to tell before retirement, I realized I am bothered by bits and pieces left out of my previously published work on the Fermilab decision, in particular what I discovered in my interactions with two key participants in that saga, Glenn Seaborg, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Edwin McMillan, then director of Berkeley Lab. It is not that this missing information changes my published assessment or conclusions, which were shaped by dozens of interviews and a mountain of documents. Instead, I present this “in between the lines” story of my experiences with Seaborg and McMillan to show case the job of a laboratory historian. In particular I want to share the scholarly as well as human joys and dilemmas encountered when doing this job, including the difficulty of dealing with and sorting through the emotions that arise when gathering information from history makers and the discomfort that comes with telling a story people don’t want to hear. I also hope this account provides further insight into important history makers and the nuances of history-making.