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Frederick Soddy and the Practical Significance of Radioactive Matter

  • Michael I. Freedman (a1)

It is for his scientific achievements that we best remember Frederick Soddy—first as the young chemist working with Ernest Rutherford and with William Ramsay in elaborating the disintegration theory of radioactive change, and then as the mature chemist, heading a research programme of his own at the University of Glasgow, a programme which culminated in his formulation of the concept of isotopes in the years before the First World War. Yet there was another side to Soddy's early scientific career: beyond his profound concern with the purely theoretical and experimental aspects of radioactivity research, there was a serious interest in what might be called the practical significance of his science. By practical, I mean those aspects capable of being put to use for the immediate or potential future benefit of man. In this paper I wish to elucidate the nature of this concern during Soddy's career, focusing particularly upon his years at the University of Glasgow, 1904–1914.

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I have greatly benefited from discussions with Lawrence Badash, Robert Marc Friedman, Owen Hannaway, Robert H. Kargon, Russell McCormmach, and Thaddeus J. Trenn. I also wish to thank Jeannine Alton and Harriet Weiskittel of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, Oxford, and Michael Moss and Elspeth Simpson of the University of Glasgow Archives.

1 Howorth Muriel, Pioneer research on the atom: the life story of Frederick Soddy, London, 1958. Romer Alfred, Radiochemistry and the discovery of isotopes, New York, 1970. Soddy Frederick, Radioactivity and atomic theory (ed. by Trenn Thaddeus J.), London, 1975.

2 Howorth, op. cit. (1), pp. 98–9. Soddy Frederick, ‘Possible future applications of radium’, The Times literary supplement, 17 07 1903, pp. 225–6; ‘A method of applying the rays of radium and thorium to the treatment of consumption’, British medical journal, 25 07 1903, 2, 197–9; ‘Radium resources’, Nature, 27 11 1913, 92, 376–7. Glasgow and West of Scotland Radium Committee minute book, University of Glasgow Archives, item 35904.

3 Soddy Frederick, ‘Radiothorium’, Nature, 4 03 1909, 80, 12.

4 Frederick Soddy, Notebooks, Oxford University Archives, Frederick Soddy Papers, items 82 and 83. ‘A process for the separation of mesothorium from monazite sand and for the concentration of mesothorium in crude products obtained from minerals containing thorium’, British patent No 25,504; date of application, 3 November 1910; complete specification, 7 April 1911; accepted 17 August 1911. ‘The chemistry of mesothorium’, Proceedings of the Chemical Society, 30 12 1910, 26, 336–7; ‘The chemistry of mesothorium’, Journal of the Chemical Society, 1911, 99, 7283. ‘The origins of the conceptions of isotopes’, in Nobel Lectures, chemistry, Vol. i: 1901–1921, New York, 1966, pp. 381–2. Rutherford Ernest, letter to Boltwood Bertram, 21 10 1911, in Badash Lawrence (ed.), Rutherford and Boltwood: letters on radioactivity, New Haven, 1969, p. 255. Hahn Otto, letters to Rutherford Ernest, 4 10 1911, 18 10 1911, in the correspondence of Ernest Rutherford, American Institute of Physics, Reel C/H 56–7. Hahn Otto, A scientific biography (tr. and ed. by Ley Willy), New York, 1966, pp. 40–8; idem, My life: the autobiography of a scientist, New York, 1970, pp. 82–5.

5 Rutherford Ernest and Soddy Frederick, ‘Radioactive change’, Philosophical magazine, 1903, 5, 576–91. Soddy Frederick, ‘The disintegration theory of radioactivity’, The Times literary supplement, 26 06 1903, p. 201; ‘Possible future applications of radium’, ibid., 17 July 1903, pp. 225–6; ‘Radium: a lecture delivered to the Corps of Royal Engineers’, Professional papers of the Royal Engineers, 1904, eg, paper VIII; Radioactivity: an elementary treatise, from the standpoint of the disintegration theory, London, 1904.

6 Soddy Frederick, ‘The internal energy of the elements’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1906, 37, 140–7; ‘The evolution of the elements’, Report of the 76th Meeting of the BAAS, 1906, pp. 122–31; The interpretation of radium: being the substance of six free popular experimental lectures delivered at the University of Glasgow, London, 1909, chapter XI; ‘The energy of radium’, Harpers monthly magazine, 12 1909, 120, 52–9; ‘Transmutation, the vital problem of the future’, Scientia, 1912, 11, 186202; Matter and energy, London, 1912, chapter X; ‘The evolution of matter’, published in the New York times, 28 09 1913, under the title, ‘Science to revolutionize all existence’; ‘Science and life’. The candid, a quarterly review of public affairs, 1914, 1, 237–60.

7 Wells H. G., The world set free: a story of mankind, London, 1914. Soddy Frederick, inaugural lecture at the University of Aberdeen, 16 10 1914, in Howorth, op. cit. (1), p. 194; Science and life: Aberdeen addresses, London, 1920.

8 C[arpenter] H. C. H., ‘Sir George Beilby, 1850–1924’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1925, 109A, ixvii. Soddy Frederick, ‘Report on the electric furnace experiments at [Cassel Cyanide Co's works] at Maryhill [Glasgow, under the auspices of George Beilby]’, and ‘Specification of the accumulator battery installed … in the Experimental Shed at the Cassel Cyanide Co's works, Maryhill, Glasgow’, Oxford University Archives, Frederick Soddy Papers, item 103; Soddy Frederick, letter to Rutherford Ernest, 2 04 1912, in the correspondence of Ernest Rutherford, American Institute of Physics, Reel E/S 157. Fleck Alexander, ‘Early work in the radioactive elements’, Proceedings of the Chemical Society, 11 1963, p. 330. Beilby G. T., ‘Modern power production and its relation to the coal resources of Great Britain’, Nature, 22 02 1906, 73, 398–9. Paneth Fritz, letter to Howorth Muriel, 4 04 1957, in Howorth, op. cit. (1), pp. 317–18. Beilby G. T., Chemistry and practical life, Glasgow, 1914.

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  • ISSN: 0007-0874
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