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Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
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Plutonium-239 sample, 1941Plutonium-239 sample, 1941

In 1940 a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, used a sixty-inch cyclotron to discover and create plutonium, a radioactive element that provides the explosive component for nuclear weapons and fuel for nuclear reactors. A sample of the plutonium isotope Pu-239, produced in 1941, was preserved in a cigar box and stored at the university for many years. In 1966 Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segré, Nobel Prize-winning physicists who had participated in the discovery, presented the sample to the Museum of History and Technology. Curators of the museum's new Hall of Nuclear Energy praised plutonium as promising "unlimited electrical power for an energy-hungry world."

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