Frederick Soddy

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Frederick Soddy
Frederick Soddy.jpg
Born (1877-09-02)2 September 1877
Eastbourne, Sussex, England
Died 22 September 1956(1956-09-22) (aged 79)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Nationality British
Alma mater
Academic advisors Ernest Rutherford[citation needed]
Doctoral students Satoyasu Iimori[citation needed]
Known for
Notable awards
Spouse Winifred Beilby[citation needed]

Frederick Soddy FRS[1] (2 September 1877 – 22 September 1956) was an English radiochemist who explained, with Ernest Rutherford, that radioactivity is due to the transmutation of elements, now known to involve nuclear reactions. He also proved the existence of isotopes of certain radioactive elements.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]


Soddy was born at 5 Bolton Road, Eastbourne, England. He went to school at Eastbourne College, before going on to study at University College of Wales at Aberystwyth and at Merton College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1898 with first class honors in chemistry.[10] He was a researcher at Oxford from 1898 to 1900.

Scientific career[edit]

In 1900 he became a demonstrator in chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity. He and Rutherford realized that the anomalous behaviour of radioactive elements was because they decayed into other elements. This decay also produced alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. When radioactivity was first discovered, no one was sure what the cause was. It needed careful work by Soddy and Rutherford to prove that atomic transmutation was in fact occurring.

In 1903, with Sir William Ramsay at University College London, Soddy verified that the decay of radium produced alpha particles composed of positively charged nuclei of helium. In the experiment a sample of radium was enclosed in a thin walled glass envelope sited within an evacuated glass bulb. Alpha particles could pass through the thin glass wall but were contained within the surrounding glass envelope. After leaving the experiment running for a long period of time a spectral analysis of the contents of the former evacuated space revealed the presence of helium. This element had recently been discovered in the solar spectrum by Bunsen and Kirchoff.[11]

From 1904 to 1914, Soddy was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. In May 1910 Soddy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.[1][12] In 1914 he was appointed to a chair at the University of Aberdeen, where he worked on research related to World War I.

The work that Soddy and his research assistant Ada Hitchins did at Glasgow and Aberdeen showed that uranium decays to radium.[13] It also showed that a radioactive element may have more than one atomic mass though the chemical properties are identical.[14] Soddy named this concept isotope meaning 'same place'. The word 'isotope' was initially suggested to him by Margaret Todd. Later, J.J. Thomson showed that non-radioactive elements can also have multiple isotopes.

In 1913, Soddy also showed that an atom moves lower in atomic number by two places on alpha emission, higher by one place on beta emission. This was discovered at about the same time by Kazimierz Fajans, and is known as the radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy, a fundamental step toward understanding the relationships among families of radioactive elements. Soddy published The Interpretation of Radium (1909) and Atomic Transmutation (1953).

In 1919 he moved to the University of Oxford as Dr Lee's Professor of Chemistry, where, in the period up till 1936, he reorganized the laboratories and the syllabus in chemistry. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research in radioactive decay and particularly for his formulation of the theory of isotopes.

His work and essays popularising the new understanding of radioactivity was the main inspiration for H. G. Wells's The World Set Free (1914), which features atomic bombs dropped from biplanes in a war set many years in the future. Wells's novel is also known as The Last War and imagines a peaceful world emerging from the chaos. In Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt Soddy praises Wells’s The World Set Free. He also says that radioactive processes probably power the stars.


In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a "campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships",[15] offering a perspective on economics rooted in physics—the laws of thermodynamics, in particular—and was "roundly dismissed as a crank".[15] While most of his proposals - "to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort" - are now conventional practice, his critique of fractional-reserve banking still "remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom".[15] Soddy wrote that financial debts grew exponentially at compound interest but the real economy was based on exhaustible stocks of fossil fuels. Energy obtained from the fossil fuels could not be used again. This criticism of economic growth is echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics.[15]

Descartes' theorem[edit]

He rediscovered the Descartes' theorem in 1936 and published it as a poem, "The Kiss Precise", quoted at Problem of Apollonius. The kissing circles in this problem are sometimes known as Soddy circles.

Honours and awards[edit]

He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921 and the same year he was elected member of the International Atomic Weights Committee. A small crater on the far side of the Moon as well as the radioactive Uranium mineral Soddyite are named after him; his contributions to his field were significant enough that the IUPAC would likely have named an element for him were it not for the orthographic and phonetic similarity and confusability between "soddium" and "sodium."[16]

Personal life[edit]

Soddy married Winifred Beilby, the daughter of Sir George Beilby, in 1908. He died in Brighton, England in 1956.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Fleck, A. (1957). "Frederick Soddy Born Eastbourne 2 September 1877 Died Brighton 26 September 1956". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3: 203–226. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1957.0014. JSTOR 769361. 
  2. ^ Davies, M. (1992). "Frederick Soddy: The scientist as prophet". Annals of Science 49 (4): 351–367. doi:10.1080/00033799200200301. 
  3. ^ Kauffman, G. B. (1997). "Book Review:The World Made New: Frederick Soddy, Science, Politics, and Environment Linda Merricks". Isis 88 (3): 564–565. doi:10.1086/383825. 
  4. ^ Daly, H. E. (1980). "The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy". History of Political Economy 12 (4): 469–426. doi:10.1215/00182702-12-4-469. 
  5. ^ Freedman, M. I. (2009). "Frederick Soddy and the Practical Significance of Radioactive Matter". The British Journal for the History of Science 12 (3): 257. doi:10.1017/S0007087400017313. 
  6. ^ Sclove, R. E. (1989). "From Alchemy to Atomic War: Frederick Soddy's "Technology Assessment" of Atomic Energy, 1900-1915". Science, Technology & Human Values 14 (2): 163–194. doi:10.1177/016224398901400203. , pp. 163–194
  7. ^ Linda Merricks (1996). The World Made New: Frederick Soddy, Science, Politics, and Environment. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. p. 223. ISBN 0-19-855934-8. 
  8. ^ A. N. Krivomazov (1978). Frederick Soddy: 1877-1956. Moscow: Nauka. p. 208. 
  9. ^ George B. Kauffman (1986). Frederick Soddy (1877-1956): Early Pioneer in Radiochemistry (Chemists and Chemistry). Dordrecht; Boston; Hingham: D. Reidel Pub. Co. p. 272. ISBN 978-90-277-1926-3. 
  10. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1921 - Frederick Soddy Biographical". Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  11. ^ Ramsay, W.; Soddy, F. (1903). "Experiments in Radioactivity, and the Production of Helium from Radium". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 72 (477–486): 204. doi:10.1098/rspl.1903.0040. 
  12. ^ "Library and Archive". Royal Society. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  13. ^ Soddy, Frederick; Hitchins, A. F. R. (August 1915). "XVII. The relation between uranium and radium.—Part VI. The life-period of ionium". Philosophical Magazine. 6 30 (176): 209–219. doi:10.1080/14786440808635387. 
  14. ^ Soddy, Frederick (15 February 1917). "The Atomic Weight of "Thorium" Lead". Nature 98 (2468): 469–469. Bibcode:1917Natur..98Q.469S. doi:10.1038/098469a0. Retrieved 12 April 2014. 
  15. ^ a b c d Eric Zencey: Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy. In: The New York Times. April 12, 2009
  16. ^ Soddyite Mineral Data

External links[edit]