Frederick Soddy – a progressive, unconventional thinker and chemist – was the first to discover the existence of isotopes.
Destined for greatness
Frederick was born in Eastbourne, England, on 2 September 1877, and it was clear that he was destined for great things when he graduated from Merton College, Oxford, in 1898 with first class honours in chemistry.
Following completion of his degree, Frederick went to Canada to work with Ernest Rutherford at McGill University in Montreal. They investigated radioactivity, which at the time was an unexplained phenomenon. He and Rutherford were the first to show that radioactivity was caused by radioactive elements decaying into other elements – known as transmutation – emitting alpha, beta and gamma radiation.
Later, as a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, he evolved the ‘Displacement Law’, showing experimentally that radium decays to produce helium gas. Following this, in 1913, he formulated the important concept of isotopes, which states that certain elements can exist in two or more forms with different atomic weights.
In 1921, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in recognition of his work on radioactive decay and the identification of isotopes. In his acceptance speech, he reflected on the importance of knowledge but also made reference to his horror at the role chemistry played in the mass deaths of World War I:
As scientific men we have all, no doubt, felt that our work has been put often to base uses, which must lead to disaster. But what sin is to the moralist and crime to the jurist so to the scientific man is ignorance. On our plane knowledge and ignorance are the immemorial adversaries.
Thermodynamics and the economy
Unnerved by the destruction caused by the misuse of science, Frederick turned his attention instead to social, political and economic theory. From 1921 to 1934, his growing interest in society and economics led him to write a series of books calling for a radical restructuring of the global economy. His theory was based on the law of thermodynamics and the idea that a machine cannot exist in perpetual motion, but must instead draw energy from an external source. Translated to economics, this means that wealth cannot be generated infinitely from nowhere. At the time, his books were met with widespread disapproval. However, as thinking became more progressive, four of his five outlined policies were adopted as standard practice.
Hope for the future
Despite the darker side to Frederick’s 1921 Nobel Prize speech, he remained hopeful of man’s ability to harness science for the benefit of society. In 1956, shortly before his death, he addressed a New Europe Group meeting on the third anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb:
Instead of commemorating Hiroshima we should celebrate... man's triumph over the problem [of transmutation] and not its first misuse by politicians and military authorities.
Frederick died in 1956 but left a lasting mark on scientific research; a uranium material, Soddyite, and a small crater on the far side of the Moon, are named after him.
Words by Elisabeth Ratcliffe
Published September 2015