Frederick Soddy

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Frederick Soddy, the son of Benjamin Soddy, a London merchant, was born at Eastbourne, Sussex, England, on September 2, 1877.

He was educated at Eastbourne College and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

From 1904 to 1914 Soddy was lecturer in physical chemistry and radioactivity in the University of Glasgow.

Here he did much practical chemical work on radioactive materials.

During this period he evolved the so-called “Displacement Law”, namely that emission of an alpha-particle from an element causes that element to move back two places in the Periodic Table.

His peak was reached in 1913 with his formulation of the concept of isotopes, which stated that certain elements exist in two or more forms which have different atomic weights but which are indistinguishable chemically.

In pursuit of the secret, Soddy used the rather basic tools available to him.

Hand-blown glass bulbs were among those tools, carefully made and then evacuated to create what is known as a vacuum tube.

Soddy used a radium sample sealed inside a thin glass container, which was sealed inside an evacuated tube.

The evacuated tube should have remained entirely empty if most elements were in the interior container, but radium is not just any element.

The radium’s atomic nuclei, holding only tenuously onto some of their large number of electrons and protons, shed them a bit at a time; for example, in the form of two protons, and two electrons.

This, as it happens, is how helium is constituted.

This is exactly what Soddy and Rutherford found.

They noticed that after the radium had been in this sealed environment for some time, the supposedly empty vacuum.

Soddy’s inferred from these facts that the radium was coming apart from a material with many particles, decomposing into elements of smaller atomic weight.

This is the basis of most of nuclear science today.

In the process of decomposition, heavy atomic weight, unstable, elements releases energy in the form of what are termed alpha, beta, and gamma particles.

Soddy was called in 1919 to a chair of chemistry at Oxford.

During his seventeen-year tenure, he failed to establish the expected school of radio-chemistry, devoting himself rather to the improvement of chemistry teaching and to the modernization of the laboratories.

He also continued to treat radioactive minerals for their constituents. After the disturbing death of his wife, Soddy retired early.

He went exploring for monazite sand and patented his 1923 process for thorium extraction in 1940. He then turned his attention to mathematics.

Looking beyond to the significance of science, Soddy who had once confidently spoken of the potential peaceful benefits for society given the key to “unlock this great store of energy bound up in the structure of the element” and, by controlling it “virtually provide anyone who wanted it with a private sun of his own,” was profoundly concerned by subsequent developments.

He zealously endeavored to awaken the conscience of the scientific community to the social relevance of their own research.

Soddy urged that “universities and learned societies should no longer evade their responsibilities and hide under the guise of false humility as the hired servants of the world their work has made possible, but do that for which they are supported in cultured release from routine occupations, and speak the truth though the heavens fall.