Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

A curious obituary: John W. Gofman

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John William Gofman M.D., Ph.D, passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 89. Gofman was Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

While a graduate student at Berkeley, Gofman co-discovered protactinium-232, uranium-232, protactinium-233, and uranium-233, and demonstrated fissionability in U-233 in both fast and thermal neutron spectra.

Post-doctorally, he continued work related to the chemistry of Plutonium, as part of the Manhattan Project. At that early period, less than a quarter of a milligram of plutonium-239 existed, but a half-milligram was urgently needed for physical measurements in relation to the MED. At the request of Robert Oppenheimer, Gofman and Robert Connick irradiated a ton of uranyl nitrate by placing it around the Berkeley cyclotron (to capture neutrons), for a total exposure period of six weeks, with operation night and day. They scaled up Gofman’s previous test-tube-sized sodium uranyl acetate process for the chemical extraction of Plutonium., dissolving 10-pound batches of the “hot ton” in big Pyrex jars, and working around the clock with the help of eight or ten others, they reduced the ton to a half cc of liquid containing 1.2 milligrams of plutonium – twice as much as expected!.

Dr. Gofman did significant work in cardiology, specifically with lipoproteins, but was best known as a figurehead of the 1970s anti-nuclear power movement.

Gofman was perhaps best known as one of the most vocal proponents of the linear no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis of radiation biology. This hypothesis posits that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, is harmful.

Curiously, for all his efforts against nuclear power, and warning of the grave risks of medical X-rays and other sources of low-dose ionsing radiation exposure in society, for all his efforts as a nuclear and radiation biology scaremonger, he did not oppose nuclear armament.

Because we live in a dangerous world,” he said in 1993, “I think the only thing you have is the deterrence value” of such weaponry.

Dr. Gofman produced a report after the April 26th, 1986 Chernobyl disaster predicting that there would be 1 million malignancies from the fallout, half of which would be fatal. 20 years later, this has not been the case, but we don’t know entirely for sure what the future will bring.

Interestingly, for somebody who worked, hands-on, extensively with actinide elements including Plutonium, and who would have experienced a relatively significantly elevated exposure to radioactivity over his early career working on actinide radiochemistry and the Manhattan Project, he lived to a relatively old age, and did not die from cancer. Many of the other famously brilliant physicists, chemists and mathematicians (I’m thinking of Feynman and von Neumann, just off the top of my head) of the 20th century who were involved with the project died prematurely, in some cases from unusual and aggressive cancers. Were some of these cases caused in part by radioactive exposure? I guess we’ll never know.

More from We Support Lee.

Written by Luke Weston

August 28, 2007 at 1:16 pm

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