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Soddy, Frederick – Soddy's role as prophet - 01 Atomic energy, its enormous amount, its future release and its shattering impact



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Frederick Soddy: The Scientist as Prophet – Professor Mansel Davies [May 1991]

Nuclear energy and physical science anticipations

There are three main aspects of Soddy's role as prophet. These are:

  • in 'atomic' energy, its enormous amount, its future release and its shattering impact:  in the same context, he expressed insights which anticipated previously unknown developments in physical science;
  • a clear grasp and a profound concern for the social responsibility relating to science and scientists;
  • fundamental weaknesses in the financial practices and in the economic structure of the industrial world.

It took the mis-named atomic bomb of 1945 to alert the public at large, and probably also most in the field of science, to the world-shaking potential of nuclear energy. Soddy was one of the very first who clearly foresaw this possibility, which he did from his earliest years in radioactivity. [see also M. I. Freedman, 'Frederick Soddy and the Practical Significance of Radioactive Matter', British Journal for the History of Science, 12 (1979)].

Another who soon followed him in this direction, and who was fully aware of Soddy's views, was H. G. Wells.

There are two essentials to be established: first, that most apparently significant opinion gave little prospect or concern for nuclear energy. This may be established by quoting Rutherford, the greatest of research leaders in nuclear physics. In a lecture at Newnham College, Cambridge, as late as December 1936, he came close to categorizing those who spoke of tapping nuclear energy as 'talking moonshine'.

In the published version of his lecture the statement becomes: 'The outlook for gaining useful energy from the atoms by artificial processes of transformation does not look promising',

Undoubtedly this view was much influenced by the extreme rarity of nuclear collisions achieved by the atom-smashing machines up to that date. However, this last observation of Rutherford's may have to be qualified by earlier pronouncements. W. C. D. Whetham is quoted by A. Keller with a Rutherford remark of 1904: '... could a proper detonator be discovered, an explosion of atomic disintegration might be started which would transmute the whole mass of the globe into helium or similar gases'.

Compared with what appears to have been Rutherford's mature mis-anticipation, a more devastating own-goal was scored by the American Nobel-prize physicist R. A. Millikan writing in 1930:

... since Mr. Soddy raised the hobgoblin of dangerous quantities of subatomic energy, [science] has brought to light good evidence that this particular hobgoblin--like most of the bugaboos that crowd in the mind of ignorance—was a myth... The new evidence, born of further scientific study, is to the effect that it is highly improbable that there is any appreciable amount of available subatomic energy for man to tap.

Quoted below are Soddy's statements of 1904 and 1912, with which this Nobel scientist's opinion of 1930 should be compared. Of Millikan, the least that can be said is:

'... the scientific establishment, represented by Millikan was whistling in the dark. '

On nuclear energy forecasting, the second aspect is to show the quality, time, and consistency of Soddy's views. On this essential feature, direct quotation from his dated writings is given with minimal additional comment. The reader's recall of later developments must suffice to reveal Soddy's prophetic role. A few other significant items relating to physical science are included in this chronological sequence.

Radium was first recognized in 1898, and the disintegration of radioactive atoms was revealed in 1902-1903. In the preface of Soddy's volume Radioactivity: An Elementary Treatise (one of, if not the very first book on the subject), he writes:

It has been recognised that there is a vast and hitherto unsuspected store of energy bound up in, and in some way associated with, the unit of elementary matter represented by the atom of Dalton.
The question naturally arises whether this great energy is only possessed by radium or is it common to heavy metals in general... These considerations force us to the conclusion that there is associated with the material structure of the atom an enormous store of energy which, in the majority of cases remains latent and unknowable.

It is established by Soddy's article in The Contemporary Review (May, 1903), and in The Times (Supplement: June and July, 1903), that Soddy was the first to use the expression 'atomic energy'.  In the same source he offers a premonition of the Uncertainty Principle and of the statistical nature of atomic properties.

It will be seen at once that chemical properties must be regarded as average properties, the individual atoms varying continuously in nature between limits which need not necessarily be narrow . . . . The internal movements of the atom must be highly irregular and cannot follow a definite sequence if the law of radioactive change is to hold good.
... the total mass Lof the atoms] must be less after disintegration than before. On this view atomic mass must be regarded as a function of the internal energy, and the dissipation of the latter in radioactivity occurs at the expense to some extent at least, of the mass of the system.

Note that Soddy's relation of atomic mass to energy dates from 1904, and so antedates the Special Theory of Relativity (1905) in which the equation E=mc 2 appears.

The source of the experience

Soddy, Frederick

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