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Soddy, Frederick

Category: Genius

"This is The Age of Energy ... it has transpired that there
exists in matter ... sufficient potential energy to supply
the utmost ambitions of the race for cosmical epochs
of time"

Professor Frederick Soddy FRS 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. 

He was born on 2nd  September 1877 in Eastbourne, Sussex, England and died on  22nd  September 1956 (aged 79) in Brighton, Sussex, England. 

He was married but had no children, and was of the opinion that all his years working with radiation had made him sterile.

Dr Kenneth Soddy [nephew], 7 September, 1979
Frederick Soddy was very reserved and I do not think he had any 'intimates'. ... For him it was disabling that he had no children ... but he showed family solidarity ...

He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921 and the same year he was elected member of the International Atomic Weights Committee. He received the Nobel Prize for his research in radioactive decay and particularly for his formulation of the theory of isotopes.  A small crater on the far side of the Moon as well as the radioactive Uranium mineral Soddyite are named after him.  In May 1910, Soddy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

But the main reason that Soddy is on the site is that not only did he receive inspiration from a place he recognised as ‘higher’ than him, he was also a prophet, a prophet few listened to and an all too accurate prophet.

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

Few will dispute that a principal criterion of the full understanding of any developing activity, be it scientific advances or horse racing, is an ability chiefly to define future trends. On this basis Soddy must be accorded a grasp so far beyond that of his contemporaries as to have led, perhaps inevitably, to frequent differences with them.

Early years and influences

Soddy grew up in Eastbourne, Sussex, in a well-to-do family. He was the youngest of four brothers (and three half-brothers) who were aged 6, 4 ½ , 3 and 16 months when his mother died. His father, then aged 57, became totally deaf a few years later. A 25 year-old half-sister accepted care of the household. “[The boys] were clever, active and unruly, and one's heart bleeds for poor Lydia. Family relationship never recovered. She did her best, I am sure, but theirs was a loveless childhood which left scars on all of the boys, as well as on Lydia.

A strict religious (Calvinist) background in the home was a feature which contributed to Soddy's constant concern for social betterment and his strength, not to say stubbornness of character, so that he had no hesitation in standing alone in many matters of public debate. “The Calvinistic element in his character is obvious.”


From early interests in science, strengthened by reading and lively family exchanges, he acquired a decisive orientation from his chemistry master at Eastbourne College.

R. E. Hughes had won a scholarship to study at the University College of Wales in 1887 and graduated in chemistry in 1891; later he became a schools' inspector.

It was he who sent Frederick Soddy and his nearest brother, Thomas, to Aberystwyth, where the latter graduated in arts.

Frederick, who had won the Keeling open entrance scholarship, studied at first-year level, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Latin and Greek. He stayed at Aberystwyth from October 1884 to December 1895, when, having won a Merton Postmastership (for which the Latin and Greek were relevant), he transferred to Oxford.

Sir John Russell F.R.S. (1872-1965), Director of Rothamsted Agricultural Experimental Station 1912-1943, a contemporary at Aberystwyth [1957]:

I first heard of him in 1895 as a brilliant chemistry student at the University College, Aberystwyth, of whom great things were expected... He was quiet, even on first acquaintance rather reserved if not actually shy, but he was capable of strong emotions and of deep affection.

Fighting adversity and lack of recognition

Soddy spent a large part of his life having to accept an almost complete lack of acknowledgement of his role in a number of key discoveries.  When the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Rutherford in 1908, the citation read: "To Ernest Rutherford as a reward for your researches on the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive matters.”

Rutherford was not actually a chemist and the choice of the Chemistry prize for Rutherford, whose outstanding penetration had been in physical studies of radioactivity, surprised even him. Rutherford was clearly neither responsible for this, nor did he appreciate it. He was accustomed to saying that of all the transformations with which he was familiar the most remarkable was his own into a chemist.

"Truth must be sought for its own sake apart from and
without regard for whether the knowledge so obtained
can ever be of any conceivable use"

The disregard of Soddy's role is shown by many later accounts. The biographical memoir to Rutherford in the Obituary Notices of the Royal Society of London minimizes Soddy's part in the transformation theory, and in a Rutherford Memorial Lecture, Soddy's name is almost completely omitted in the account of the disintegration theory.

The situation was summarized by Paneth, himself a Nobel Prize winner for his work on isotopes:

H O. Paneth in Pioneer
Anybody who studies the original papers will easily recognize the decisive part the chemist must have played in this joint work... Nevertheless in later books Soddy's name sometimes no longer appears in this context: to Rutherford is attributed the sole merit--illustrating the old truth, well known to the students of the history of science, that great reputations tend to absorb the smaller ones-- although Rutherford himself always gave full credit to his colleague.

Further striking facts are that the British Chemical Society never awarded Soddy any particular recognition, and neither did the Royal Society. Soddy was a Fellow of both societies and that was all.

Much of this appeared to stem from simple jealousy.  By 1919 Soddy had published twenty-two papers under his own name and twenty-three in which there were co-authors. The latter group included the nine papers with Rutherford which transformed the world's knowledge of the atom.

"Science has come to be, for the people, little better
than a byword for commercialism, materialism and
greed, for polluted rivers, smoking cities and
desecrated landscapes.

Frederick Soddy: The Scientist as Prophet – Professor Mansel Davies [May 1991]
The antagonism was such that, inheriting a replica of a medieval building in which to teach and carry out research in inorganic and physical chemistry, all Soddy's efforts to make adequate provision for these activities were subject to frustration. After eight years in the 'ill-kept, ill-furnished, ill-equipped building', he was allotted £12,000 to improve his laboratory. 'He acted as his own architect, builder's supervisor, and engineer. He succeeded magnificently.' The Old Chemistry building was converted into a useable state. Many other developments he proposed came to nothing, until, on his own retirement, they were put into operation within the year and included the construction of a new building for Physical Chemistry.

Another very obvious problem is that he was upsetting the theories and established beliefs of his colleagues, who had no doubt been teaching ‘facts’, which were being shown to be wrong.

As Niccolò Machiavelli said:
It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones

But despite all the adversity he persevered.

Soddy retired from the chair at Oxford within months of the death of his wife, to whom he was deeply attached. He was fifty-nine. He died twenty years later, the first Oxford Nobel Laureate, his award coming in the same year (1921) as Einstein's award in physics.

Some of the sad details of the frustration Soddy suffered have been documented in a special issue of The British Journal for the History of Science - A. D. Cruikshank, 'Soddy at Oxford', British Journal for the History of Science, 12 (1979) -  and in several places in Muriel Howorth's book, Pioneer.

Work in radioactivity

Soddy graduated from Merton College with first class honours in chemistry in 1898.

He was a researcher at Oxford from 1898 to 1900, then in 1900 he became a demonstrator in chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity.

Rutherford and Soddy were able to show that the emanation of thorium was in fact a material substance, a gas, which could be isolated.  It could be liquefied almost as easily as chlorine, but it did not react with any chemical reagent; it was in fact just as inert as argon and the other newly discovered inert gases.  At this point Soddy thought that the emanation of thorium might be argon, and he was – as he wrote later:

Overwhelmed with something greater than joy – I cannot very well express it – a kind of exaltation … I remember quite well standing there transfixed as though stunned by the colossal impact of the thing and blurting out – or so it seemed at the time ‘Rutherford this is transmutation; the thorium is disintegrating and transmuting itself into argon gas’.
Rutherford’s reply was typically aware of more practical implications ‘For Pete’s sake Soddy, don’t call it transmutation.  They’ll have our heads off as alchemists’

The new gas was not argon, it was a brand new element with its own unique bright line spectrum.  Its atomic weight was 222 and it was thus the heaviest and last in the inert gas series, and as such could take its place in the periodic table as the final member of Mendeleev’s group.  Rutherford and Soddy provisionally named it Thoron or Emanation.

Thoron disappeared with great speed – half of it was gone in a minute, three quarters in two minutes and in ten minutes it was no longer detectable.  It was the rapidity of this breakdown and the appearance of a radioactive deposit in its place which allowed Rutherford and Soddy to perceive what had not been clear with uranium or radium – that there was indeed a continuous disintegration of the atoms of radioactive elements and with this their transformation to other atoms.  They also noticed some peculiar characteristics of this decay which have still not been properly explained:

The chance at any instant whether an atom disintegrates or not in any particular second is fixed.  It has nothing to do with any external or internal consideration we know of and in particular is not increased by the fact that the atom has already survived any period of past time …. All that can be said is that the immediate cause of atomic disintegration appears to be due to chance

The life span of an individual atom might thus vary from zero to infinity and there was nothing to distinguish an atom ready to disintegrate from one that had a billion years before it.

The discovery helped to provide an age for the earth.  Radioactive elements – chiefly uranium and thorium and their breakdown products, but also a radioactive isotope of potassium had served to keep the earth warm for billions of years and to protect it from the premature heat death that Kelvin had predicted.


Rutherford and Soddy were ultimately able to delineate three separate cascades, each containing a dozen or so breakdown products emanating from the disintegration of the original parent elements.  Only gradually did it become clear that many of the elements were just versions of one another; the emanations of radium and thorium and actinium, for example, though they had widely different half lives, were chemically identical, all the same element, though with slightly different atomic weights.  Soddy later named these isotopes.

Radium G, Actinium E and Thorium E – so called were all isotopes of lead.  Every substance in these cascades of radioactivity had its own unique radio signature, a half life of fixed and invariable duration, as well as characteristic radiation emission, and it was this which allowed Rutherford and Soddy to sort them all out, and in so doing to found the new science of radiochemistry.

Rutherford’s later experiments were to show that the atom must consist overwhelmingly of empty space, with a dense, positively charged nucleus only a hundred thousandth its diameter and a relatively few negatively charged electrons in orbit around this nucleus – a miniature solar system in effect.  This nuclear model of the atom provided a structural basis for the enormous differences between radioactive and chemical processes, the million-fold differences of energy involved and Soddy demonstrated this in his popular lectures by holding a one pound jar of uranium oxide aloft in one hand – ‘this’ he would say ‘has the energy of a hundred and sixty tons of coal’.

He explained that radioactive processes involved the nuclei of atoms, and since these were held together by far greater forces, their disintegration could release energies of far greater magnitude – some millions of electron volts.  Soddy was the one to coin the term atomic energy soon after the beginning of the 20th century, ten years or more before the nucleus was discovered.

Could transmutation which occurs naturally in radioactive substances be produced artificially? Soddy wondered.  Soddy envisaged this artificial transmutation 15 years before Rutherford achieved it and imagined controlled atomic disintegrations long before fission or fusion were discovered.  He was moved by this thought to rapturous, and almost mystical heights:

Radium has taught us that there is no limit to the amount of energy in the world …. A race which could transmute matter would have little need to earn its bread by the sweat of its brow …. Such a race could transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden … an entirely new prospect has been opened up.  Man’s inheritance has increased, his aspirations have been lifted and his destiny has been ennobled to an extent beyond our present power to foretell …. One day he will attain the power to regulate for his own purposes the primary foundations of energy which Nature now so jealously conserves for the future.


This vision sounds remarkably naïve given the predicament that we are in now, but Soddy was not as naïve as this statement appears to indicate.  Soddy wrote about these visions in the book The Interpretation of Radium, in 1909, in it he provided a vision of endless energy, endless light.  But he was well aware of the dark possibilities too.  And, indeed, these had been in his mind from the very start; as early as 1903 he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of”.

But it was not until Soddy’s powerful vision inspired H G Wells to write in 1914 The World Set Free, that Soddy suddenly realised the dangers of this new discovery:

H. G. Wells -  The World Set Free
‘Always before in the development of warfare, the shells and rockets fired had been but momentarily explosive, they had gone off in an instant once and for all .... but [with radioactive materials] ... once its degenerative process had been induced, continued a furious radiation of energy and nothing could arrest it.

H. G. Wells' The World Set Free (1914), features atomic bombs dropped from biplanes in a war set many years in the future. Wells' novel is also known as The Last War and imagines a peaceful world emerging from the chaos.  Thus H G Wells was the prophet, but Soddy provided him with the insight that was used to write the book.  Whether a ‘peaceful world emerged from the chaos’ of Hiroshima is a moot point.  

Up until 1914 when this prophetic novel was written by H G Wells, Soddy had been forging on, extremely excited by the prospect of 'free',  fossil fuel less power.


In 1903, with Sir William Ramsay at University College London, Soddy showed that the decay of radium produced helium gas. From 1904 to 1914, Soddy was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. In 1914 he was appointed to a chair at the University of Aberdeen.  The work that Soddy and his research assistant Ada Hitchins did at Glasgow and Aberdeen showed that uranium decays to radium. It was in this research that he found that a radioactive element may have more than one atomic mass though the chemical properties are identical. Soddy named this concept isotope meaning 'same place'.  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.

But Wells' novel had a huge impact on Soddy.

Recognising when to stop

Dr Kenneth Soddy [nephew], 12 August and 7 September, 1979

When I came to discuss these matters with him (Oxford, etc.) in the aftermath of 'the bomb', his chief bete noire was undoubtedly Lindemann, whose war-time exploits were anathema to humanity-loving Uncle Fred ...

"The horror of the waste of food is inborn, the horror

of the waste of fuel has still to be acquired."

After reading Wells' novel, Soddy changed direction.  He started to write extensively on the social responsibilities of science and scientists. He argued that once the potential for danger reveals itself, one must reorient the whole of one’s work to avoid it.

Soddy’s approach – together with the action taken by the like-minded Leo Szilard – provides a foundation for the anticipatory governance of emerging technologies.

He coupled this concern with many publications about the basic weaknesses in the economic-financial system of the Western world. And these two are linked.

In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a "campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships", and was "roundly dismissed as a crank". Most of his proposals are now conventional practice.

This aspect of his life is rarely explored and yet it is key to understanding the man and the importance of his real contribution to science.  He was as we shall see from the observations using his prophetic insights – a man whose destiny was to bring new ideas to the table but also to bring about greater ethical and moral restraints on the use of gradually more and more powerful discoveries.

Soddy also tried to explain that the real economy was based on exhaustible stocks of fossil fuels. Energy obtained from the fossil fuels could not be used again. As such we were in essence amassing a debt for the future.  We were using up capital at an alarming rate as well as letting economic growth be our only driver – our only measurement of a country’s prosperity.  Society could be on the point of complete meltdown with suicides at their highest, sickness rampant, pollution growing, nutritional deprivation and misery at appalling levels, but as this was never brought into the equation, economists would keep on saying the country’s economy was ‘growing’. This criticism of economic growth is echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics.


Soddy has been criticised for his book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt.  The book has been called 'anti-semitic', but Soddy’s main argument was against a corrupt and manipulative banking system, and a "financial conspiracy to enslave the world". As he said "A corrupt monetary system strikes at the very life of the nation." And with sub-prime mortgages, the extremely high debt that many children and their parents have been induced to incur to obtain meaningless qualifications, as well as the invention of countless psychiatric illnesses to boost the pharmaceutical industry and the role and wealth of the psychiatrist, we can see he was right. 

Let us look at this logically.  Via the very hard work of the many, money is earned, which is intended to provide them with food, housing, warmth and entertainment.  Its original purpose was as an exchange mechanism.  If we consider food as medicine, they have no need of pharmaceuticals.

They are encouraged to save for a time when they cannot work because of old age.  The money they save is placed in a ‘bank’ which gives them practically no interest, as the bank states it is providing a service by keeping their money ‘safe’ for them.  This money, however, is then lent out, and the banks decide who they are going to lend it to and at what interest rate.  As such their power is inordinately strong.  Banks control the economy.  It is banks that have encouraged the continued use of fossil fuels, the continued emphasis on manufacturing instead of mending and repair, the continued emphasis on ‘growth’ and the depletion of resources at an unsustainable rate.  It is they who encourage factory farming - pesticides and insecticides, lending money to farmers to seek better ‘returns’.  Soddy was right.

Henry Ford once wrote: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution


Money has also totally corrupted scientific endeavour with results being manipulated to suit sponsors.  Instead of collecting observations and then forming hypotheses, the scientific community appear to form hypotheses and then collect observations to attempt to prove it.  Science is no longer science. 

At no stage should we assume the Great Work allows for everything to be ‘alright’ with respect to these discoveries – they are the tools of our own destruction, or our own progress.  We are being given a test and make no mistake, if we fail the test we will be dead as a species – mass extinction is inevitable – and indeed prophesied by many eastern religions.

Soddy’s warnings and guidelines could not be more timely.

Lewis Mumford, 1957 [Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE)]:

I met Soddy... in 1920, just about the time when he was turning from his work as an experimental chemist.., this preoccupation with economic problems doubtless seemed an aberration to many other people besides his fellow scientists.

 "The man who said that it was
not possible to fool all the public
all of the time was quite ignorant
of the methods of modern banking

Without doubt it involved a sacrifice of Soddy's special gifts in the field of Chemistry, but it showed an alertness to the special responsibility of the scientific mind that was exemplary; so that if there had been more Soddys in the world, with the same alertness and the same sensitivity, our age would have been prepared-- as even now it is not--to cope with the vast problems which nuclear energy have raised. Soddy demonstrated, by his own too lonely example, the necessary transcendence of the limits of specialization which must become general if our achievements are not to be undone by the crippled minds who know their isolated field not wisely but too well and who know life itself, in all its manifold possibilities and challenges, not at all. By his example, yes even by his 'failure', he has become one of the heralds of a new age, whose coming awaits a whole generation of Soddys



  • The Pumpkin or the Tiger? Michael Polanyi, Frederick Soddy, and Anticipating Emerging Technologies - David H. Guston - 2012 - Minerva 50 (3):363-379
  • Frederick Soddy: The Scientist as Prophet – Professor Mansel Davies [May 1991]

By Professor Soddy

  • Radioactivity: An Elementary Treatise from the Standpoint of the Disintegration Theory  (London, 1904) - This volume, which has a chapter entitled 'Anticipations', is a rich source of prophetic statements
  • The Interpretation of Radium (1909)
  • Matter and Energy (1911),
  • The Chemistry of the Radio-elements (1915)
  • Science and life: Aberdeen addresses (1920)
  • Cartesian Economics: The Bearing of Physical Science upon State Stewardship (1921)
  • Nobel Lecture – The origins of the conception of isotopes (1922)
  • Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt. The solution of the economic paradox (George Allen & Unwin, 1926)
  • The wrecking of a scientific age (1927)
  • The Interpretation of the Atom (1932)
  • Money versus Man (1933)
  • The Role of Money (1934)
  • Money as nothing for something ; The gold "standard" snare (1935)
  • Present outlook, a warning : debasement of the currency, deflation and unemployment (1944)
  • The Story of Atomic Energy (1949)
  • Atomic Transmutation (1953)


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