First Plutonium


Although Enrico Fermi had discovered element 94 (which he named Hesperium) in 1934, it was not first produced and isolated until December 14, 1940. By then, it was named after Pluto after the symbol ‘Pu’ was jokingly suggested. A paper documenting the discovery was written but was withdrawn before publication after the discovery that an isotope of the new element (Pu-239) could undergo nuclear fission in a way that might be useful in an atomic bomb.

Publication was delayed until a year after the end of World War II due to security concerns. In 1946, LIFE’s Fritz Goro was finally allowed to photograph plutonium. The above was that picture–the first speck of the world’s first plutonium on an platinum shovel.

During his four decades as a science photographer for Life magazine, Goro documented images made possible only by this turbulent century’s scientific advances: atomic orbitals, DNA helices, stars, blood circulation in animals and computer chips. He also unblinkingly documented fish eggs with well-developed eyes, minuscule yet recognizable cow fetuses (that became poster images for anti-abortion), a cancerous growth in a rabbit’s eye, a chick with an experimental transplanted eye, a rat with a walnutlike tumor growing from its head, and his most memorable and horrific 1965  photograph of surgery being conducted on a prenatal monkey.  Stephen Jay Gould called Goro “the most influential photographer that science journalism (and science in general) has ever known.”

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