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, 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 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
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 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
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.
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.