Radiotherapy to dinosaur diets: celebrating 100 years of isotope science

On Wednesday 4th December, scientists will be celebrating “Isotope Day” to mark 100 years since chemist Frederick Soddy coined the word “isotope” in his letter to Nature.  Soddy’s work at the University of Glasgow was later awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Dr John Faithfull from the Hunterian Museum chatted to us about Soddy’s discovery and what to expect from next week’s festivities…

Dr John Faithfull

Dr John Faithfull, geologist and curator at the Hunterian Museum

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m John Faithfull and I look after geological and scientific collections in the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. This includes radioactive stuff.

Isn’t that dangerous?

I hope not. Radioactivity is everywhere and always has been. The very potassium in our bodies, which we need to live, is radioactive. However, it’s very wise to minimise extra exposure, and this can be done by using proper facilities, equipment and being careful.

What are the most recent radioactive items you’ve been working with?

We’ve recently become responsible for some very old, historically important radioactive samples which were used by Frederick Soddy when he “discovered” isotopes at Glasgow in 1913.

One of Soddy's handwritten samples (containing radioactive mesothorium).

One of the samples containing radioactive radium isotopes (228Ra, then known as mesothorium), labelled in Soddy’s handwriting.

Who was Frederick Soddy?

Soddy in the lab at the University of Glasgow

Soddy in the lab at the University of Glasgow

He was one of the pioneers of radiochemistry who made sense of the strange new phenomenon which had been discovered by Henri Becquerel in 1896. Working with others, especially Ernest Rutherford, and later by himself at Glasgow, he made several key breakthroughs including the fact that elements turned into other elements during radioactive decay, the fact that alpha particles were helium nuclei, the displacement laws which showed how radioactive decay fitted with the periodic table, and the concept of isotopes. For these discoveries he got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921.

Soddy's Nobel Prize certificate. Photograph provided by his relative, Andrew Soddy.

Soddy’s Nobel Prize certificate. Photograph kindly provided by his relative, Andrew Soddy.

What is an isotope?

Isotopes are chemically-identical atoms with different nuclear properties, or as their discoverer, Frederick Soddy put it “.. Put colloquially, their atoms have identical outsides but different insides.”

Isotopes entered the scientific literature on 100 years ago, on 4th December 1913, when Soddy published a research letter in the science journal Nature.

The first appearance of the word "isotope" in Nature

The first appearance of the word “isotope” in Nature

Why was this discovery important?

The realisation that the chemical world hid a whole new world of variation and types of matter, laid the basis for much of modern science. The first practical use of isotopes was unfortunately, atomic weapons, which relied on the USA being able to “enrich” uranium in the fissile isotope 235U. Amazingly, Soddy had predicted weapons based on nuclear energy in 1908 – his prediction formed the basis for HG Wells 1913 novel of nuclear war “The World Set Free”.

Soddy died in 1956 and since his death, isotopes have become vital parts of most modern chemistry, medicine and engineering: from carbon dating, to nuclear reactors, drug testing, the diets of cavemen and dinosaurs, and medical scanning.

David Sanderson testing for gamma ray radiation at Fukoshima, using a spectrometer developed at the University of Glasgow.

David Sanderson testing for gamma ray radiation at Fukoshima, using a spectrometer developed at the University of Glasgow.

Isotopes have been used for dating the oldest crystal on Earth, among other things

Isotopes have been used for dating some very old things, including the oldest crystal on Earth

What can we expect from Isotope Day?

To celebrate the 100th birthday of isotopes there will be a public lecture (no knowledge of isotopes required!) at noon on Wednesday 4th December, in the Main Lecture Theatre, Joseph Black Building (Chemistry), University of Glasgow.

That evening we will be opening a new exhibit on Soddy’s work, and current isotope science in Glasgow in the Hunterian Museum’s new Science Showcase space. Between now and March this will feature a range of public talks, activities and demonstrations by isotope scientists from the University.

Join John for his public lecture “Born in Glasgow: 100 years of Isotope Science” from 12-1pm on Wednesday 4th December at the University of Glasgow. For directions to the Joseph Black Building see B4 on the campus map, available here.

Free event, all welcome. You can also follow the festivities on Twitter with the hashtag #IsotopeDay.

For more information, visit the Hunterian’s website.


Science Saturday: this weekend!

This Saturday afternoon, indulge in some science-y fun for Science Saturday at Tollcross Community Centre! Make your own cuddly flu virus or build a bath bomb: the perfect stocking filler for budding scientists this Christmas. All completely FREE!

Science Saturday

Join Glasgow Science Festival for Science Saturday this weekend!

Explosions in the Sky

Remember Remember, the Fifth of November…

This evening is Guy Fawkes Night and soon revelers across the country will be ooh’ing and aah’ing as the sky is lit up with an array of beautiful colours (and in the case of Glasgow, some interesting shapes – this is a family-friendly blog, google it!).

The ill-fated Guy Fawkes, mastermind of the failed 'Gunpowder Plot' to blow up the Houses of Parliament (photo from WIkipedia).

The ill-fated Guy Fawkes, mastermind of the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up the Houses of Parliament (photo from WIkipedia).

But what is it that gives fireworks their colour?  The answer of course lies in chemistry…

Fireworks contain metal compounds called metal salts and metal oxides.  When these are heated, the atoms of the metal absorb energy, causing electrons to become ‘excited’ and move to a higher energy level. As the heat dissipates, the electrons plummet back down to their lower energy level and excess energy is released as light.

The atoms of different metals emit different amounts of energy, which produces different wavelengths of light (i.e. different colours).

For example, when the metal salt sodium nitrate is heated, sodium atoms absorb energy and are excited; when the electrons fall back to their lower energy state, energy is released as light in the wavelength of about 500-600nm, which is the wavelength of yellow-coloured light (see below).


Visible light spectrum. Short wavelengths of visible light produce violet and blue colours; longer wavelengths emit orange and red colours.

Here are some metals commonly found in fireworks and their associated pretty colours….

Sodium Photos: Wikipedia, Colorbox

Sodium (photos from Wikipedia, ColorBox)


Barium (photos from Wikipedia, ColorBox)

Strontium (photos from Wikipedia,

Strontium (photos from Wikipedia,

Copper (photos from Wikipedia,

Copper (photos from Wikipedia,

Purple fireworks can be produced using a mixture of strontium and copper compounds


Strontium (red) + Copper (blue) = Purple firework (images from Wikipedia,

Calcium (images from Wikipedia,

Calcium (images from Wikipedia,

So there we have it. Now you’re armed with some quality science to dazzle your pals with as you brave the crowds and rogue sparklers at Glasgow Green tonight:

“What’s your favourite firework? I like the the Catherine wheel”

“I favour a mixture of strontium and copper. The energy emitted when the electrons return to their lower energy state is highly agreeable.”

Now THAT’S good chat.

‘Onion bhaji’ Meteorites, Trinidadian Leeches and Monster Skulls: Bringing Science to the Community

CLAN (Community Led Ambassador Network) is a project funded by the Scottish Government’s ‘Talking Science’ scheme which aims to bring science into the top 0.5% most deprived areas in Scotland through free public engagement activities led by Glasgow Science Festival and University of Glasgow researchers.

The project is now well underway. By the time of its completion, CLAN will have reached around 6500 people, from young children to the elderly.  Events have ranged from a family-friendly ‘Space Fair’ at the Platform community hub in Easterhouse to science-themed crafts for adults at a refugee drop-in centre in Govan.

Science of local interest has also featured, such as the High Possil meteorite which fell  in 1804 in an area of Glasgow now known as Lambhill. For the first time in over 200 years, the meteorite was returned to Lambhill for an event with Dr John Faithfull, who shared the little-known story of its discovery with locals at Lambhill Stables community centre. Visitors were free to handle a variety of stony and iron meteorites on loan from the Hunterian Museum, including one specimen whose crusty appearance quickly earned it the nickname: “the 4500 million year old onion bhaji”.


A stony iron meteorite, dubbed “the onion bhaji”

Researchers from across the university have played a valuable role in making science accessible to diverse audiences.  Dr Mhairi Stewart from the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation attended the G15 Youth Group’s ‘Girls Night’ in Drumchapel, enthusing girls aged 11-13 in parasitology. Her unique props included a real human brain and a leech which was delicately prised from the leg of a member of the university’s Trinidad expedition team after some particularly boggy fieldwork in 2006.  At the same event, Dr Zara Gladman got her hands dirty with the chemistry of bath bombs (her face and body remained peppered with glitter for several days).

bath bomb

A selection of skulls on loan from the Hunterian Zoology Museum provided the perfect focus for a Halloween-themed art class at Drumchapel Community Centre last month in collaboration with DRAW, with children drawing some beautifully imaginative pictures and building their own fantasy animals (with appropriate herbivorous or carnivorous dentition) out of clay.

monster ben

Ben the Monster. Carnivorous dentition clearly visible.

Also last month, Dr Stewart White, Darryl McLennan, Robert Gillespie and Zan Boyle from the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine donated items to the “scientist’s goody bag”, which inspired a science-art workshop for children who were very excited to try on lab coats, have a go at pipetting and be simultaneously fascinated and grossed out by Stewart’s botfly larva.

One of the great successes of CLAN has been to harness the expertise of researchers in support of practical community projects. Ecologist Dr Deborah McNeill, for example, has been paired with volunteers at the Lambhill Stables community garden, where she is offering advice and training in pond biodiversity surveying.


Lambhill Stables community garden

It is hoped that these events will mark the beginning of a number of meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with community groups across the city and beyond.  Glasgow Science Festival is keen to hear from more researchers who would like to be involved in future community-based public engagement. If you are interested, please contact Deborah McNeill: