Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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process possible is the supply of energy as sunlight


to the plant, which, unlike the animal, can utilise it
in this form for its life's work.

Scientifically there is nothing peculiar about vital
energy, or about one form of available energy rather
than another. That is to say, if not yet, some time
in the future, the synthesis of food from the material
constituents and any form of available energy will
probably become possible. Historically, and till
quite recently, the energy of sunlight, apart from an
insignificant source in the tides, was the sole income
of energy available for the world, and the traditional
source by which, through the intermediary of plant
metabolism, both men and animals lived. Mankind
still lives solely on the energy derived from the sun,
but in addition to his former income, utilised as
before through the pursuit of agriculture, he has
secured the control of a handsome legacy of solar
energy, laid by in former times. He is living on
an immensely more lavish scale than any of his
predecessors, not because he has had any great
increase in salary in the proper sense, not even
because he is, in the mass, somewhat more intelligent,
but because he is squandering an inheritance. The
plants which, alone of living forms, can utilise the
energy of sunlight, were at work for man ages before
the remotest likeness to his image had appeared
upon the world, and, even then, were laying the
foundations on which alone his present greatness
rests. Quite extraordinary physiographical conditions
must have prevailed, an alternate uplifting and
depressing of the bed of the ocean, time and again,
as one age succeeded another, when the luxuriant
forests of the carboniferous era flourished in the sun,
and then sank beneath the sea. In this fossilised
vegetation, preserved as coal, sandwiched between
alternate layers of shale, is conserved some tiny
fraction of the solar energy so prodigally radiated


throughout those bygone wastes of geological time.
It is kindled, its store of energy bursts again into
flame, and a civilisation, such as the world has never
known, springs into being with the sunlight of a
hundred million years ago augmenting its own.

The source of energy by which the modern world
lives so profligately is no steady or perennial stream,
such as that out of which our forefathers evolved
their greatness. It is a stagnant pond, trapped from
the main cosmical flow by a fortunate sequence of
earth-movements, being drained at an ever-increasing
rate and in an ever-increasing number of ways.
"You have given me a store of energy," the modern
Archimedes might say, "and steel wherewith to
apply it, and lo ! I have moved the world."


In justice to science, however, it must be said that
not all its conquests are effected by the expenditure
of the capital sum of energy ; for there is a secondary,
but considerable, source of energy available to the
modern world, representing the better utilisation of
the fixed income. Water power, or white fuel, as it
is picturesquely called abroad, is a small part of the
perennial supply of solar energy, conserved by purely
physical processes, without the elaborate intervention
of life at all, and the utilisation of which on every
count, except the aesthetic, is a source of pure gain to
the community. Energy itself is indestructible, and
in itself is only valuable in its conversion from what
may be called higher to lower forms. The natural
transformations occur without loss of the absolute
amount of energy. Rather what is lost is merely
opportunity to direct those transformations to useful

In nature this opportunity passes as a rule


quickly. Of the immense amount of radiant energy
received by the earth, only a very minute proportion
is arrested in its transformation. Most finds its way
unused into the great ocean of heat energy of nearly
uniform temperature, and the attainment of this dead
level marks the final goal of every stream of energy
received by or set in motion in the world, whether it
is utilised or not. The opportunity once passed can
never be retrieved. The energy now being considered
formerly so ran to waste. Now it, to a great extent,
turns turbines linked to dynamos, feeds the fires of
electric furnaces at temperatures rivalled only by the
originating sun, links itself to matter in the form of
compounds, which are used to fertilise the soil and
facilitate the work of sunlight and the seed, producing
food. The food nourishes an army of workers, and
the energy of the falling waterdrops, arrested in their
headlong passage to the sea, now pursues a long
eventful journey, beyond even the ken of the cold
calculations of science. Linked in intimacy with
human destiny, it translates thought and intelligence
into action, before the partnership is severed, and it
merges itself at last into the general level it set out
so bravely to reach, headlong and divinely useless at
one bound. Science that has done this has moved
the whole world nearer to the glow. Not at its door,
surely, should be laid the consequences if the energy
of the falling waterdrops has been drained to provide
the machinery of destruction, rather than of life.


Until the twentieth century had entered its
opening decade a thoughtful observer of the social
consequences of science would have seen in the
revolution cause for profound uneasiness. Here was
no stable or enduring development, but rather the



accelerating progress of the spendthrift to destruction,
so soon as the inheritance had been squandered and
the inevitable day of reckoning arrived. When coal
and oil were exhausted, and the daily modicum of
sunlight represented once again, as of yore, the
whole precarious means of livelihood of the world, the
new inanimate servant of science, like the slaves of
the ancients, would prove a dangerous helpmate, and
the mushroom civilisation it had engendered would
dissolve like the historic empires of the past, this
time submerging the world.

No one had guessed the truth, though geological
records tell of a history, vastly longer than human,
during which, without much change, certainly without
any evidence of progressive exhaustion, the energy of
the sun had been invigorating and quickening the
world. The fixed stars overhead, shining without
apparent change of splendour throughout the past
ages so far back as human memory extends, speak of
a continuous outpouring of energy which, making all
allowance for the vast scale of cosmical events,
possesses a character of permanence and endurance
foreign to the processes and events which hitherto
had come within the ken of science. No one had
guessed the original source of the stream of energy
which rejuvenates the universe, nor that it has its
rise, not in the unfathomable immensities of space,
but in the individual atoms of matter all around. In
so far as it is dominated by the supply of available
energy, the limits of the possible expansion and
development of the race in the future have been
virtually abolished by this discovery of the immanence
of the physical sources of life and motion in the

Painfully and with infinite slowness man has
crawled to the elevation from which he can envisage
his eventful past as a whole from one standpoint, as


that of a struggle, still largely internecine rather than
co-operative, for a miserably inadequate allowance of
energy. He looks back across the gulf of time from
the day of the nameless and forgotten savage, who
first discovered the art of kindling a fire, to himself,
his logical descendant, master of a world largely
nourished by the energy of fuel, and humming with
the music of inanimate machinery. He turns his
thoughts downward into the earth and wonders how
long the source of his new life will hold out. He
looks up once more at the unchanging stars and
realises, as one who before has been but blind, that
the immeasurable interval that separates him from
the hidden sources which bear the universe along, is
no immeasurable interval of space, whatever it may
be of future time. The main stream sweeps past his
doors, and the great gulf that yawns between him and
the consummation of his emancipation looks small
enough compared with the gulf that yawns behind.

No better illustration could be chosen of the spirit
of absolute detachment from practical affairs, in
which the highest and most practical knowledge is
won, than the familiar history of the march of events
which, in the closing decade of the nineteenth century
and the opening years of the twentieth, revealed the
immanence and accessibility of cosmical energy. To
spend a feverish life in the attempt to transmute
base-metal into gold, or to discover the secret o7
perpetual motion, would be to tread a well-trodden
highway leading nowhere. But to exhibit a divine
curiosity in an abstruse phenomenon, such as the
rays given out by fluorescent substances, and whether
any of them, like the X-rays, are able to penetrate an
opaque material, to follow nature rather than to lead,
and to win a grain of knowledge for the communism
of science, is to stumble upon secrets such as these


So radium was discovered, and it has been
remarked that the future race will date the coming-
in of its kingdom from this discovery, mainly due to
a woman.

Through the wealth of new discovery that
followed the recognition and investigation of natural
radioactivity, we have but to pursue still the single
connected thread which science has shot through
the whole fabric of human history. Rays of a
fundamentally new character are given out by
radium, of various kinds and intense interest, and
a thousand new phenomena make themselves mani-
fest, but like galley slaves and fertilisers, waterfalls
and food, they must here be brought into line from
the single view point. Their energy is of the same
category and obeys the same laws as the forms
which before have nourished and embellished life.
Not yet, at least, has science got outside the
jurisdiction of that universal legislation, whatever
may be its ultimate aspirations.

The energy evolved by radium spontaneously,
however new and wonderful it may be, is yet
measurable in current coin. In a single day it
approaches in magnitude the energy evolved from
a similar weight of any materials undergoing the
most energetic chemical reactions known. In a year
it evolves about 1 50 times as much energy as would
be evolved in the complete combustion of the same
weight of coal. Yet in the fifteen years that have
elapsed since the discovery no measurable diminu-
tion of this rate of emission has been observed.
If science is right, this emission will steadily
decrease as the centuries roll by. But it is still
possible to put a value on the total amount of
energy a given weight of radium will furnish before
the outflow comes to an end. It is about a third of
a million times as great as would be evolved in the


combustion of the same weight of coal, the source
of energy on which the world, in so far as it is
modern, subsists.

Whence arises such a stream still flowing in this
world of ancient lineage, from a material extracted
from minerals found in rocks, many of them coeval
with the beginning of geological time ? Tracked to
earth, the clue to the great secret, for which a
thousand telescopes might have swept the sky for
ever and in vain, lay in a scrap of matter, dowered
with something of the same inexhaustible radiance
that hitherto has been the sole prerogative of the
distant stars and sun.

The solution of these problems followed the proof
that the energy of radioactive substances was evolved
in new kinds of change, which are distinguished from
those studied in chemistry in two ways. In the
first place they are more fundamental, and concern
a plane in the complexity of matter hitherto not
penetrated. It is the unit of matter, indivisible in
chemical changes, the atom of the radioactive
element, which in radioactive changes subdivides or
disintegrates. Secondly, per unit weight of matter
changing, energy of the order of a million times
greater than in any previously known change is
given out.

Just as chemical changes, the disruption and
formation of molecules and the rearrangement of
the component atoms out of which they are built
such changes as the explosion of dynamite or
gunpowder occur with far greater corresponding
changes of energy than physical changes, like the
change of state in the vaporisation of water or con-
densation of steam, so with these new changes, which
are concerned with the inner architecture of atoms.
All material processes studied hitherto have been con-
cerned solely with the external relationships of atoms.


With the discovery of radioactivity the Rubicon
was crossed, and physical science found itself in a
new world, in the presence of giant-like primary
manifestations of energy which proceed in absolute
indifference to and completely unaffected by any of
the pygmy second-order influences of the world
external to themselves, the old world of chemistry
and physics.

These radioactive disintegrations of the atom
proceed in a long sequence of successive changes at
characteristic rates. The primary parent-elements,
uranium and thorium, each stand, as it were, at the
head of a long genealogical table, comprising some
fourteen members in the first, and twelve members
in the second case, before the processes come to
an end and the outflow of energy accompanying
them ceases.

Each of the changes proceeds at definite rates
which, so far as has been ascertained, are absolutely
independent of every known consideration, and so
it comes about that each of these successive products
has a characteristic average period of life. Its atom
remains in existence for a period of time which is,
on the average, definite, and which varies among
the various successive members between the ex-
tremes, estimated indirectly in a variety of ways,
of a hundred-thousand-millionth of a second on the
one hand and twenty thousand million years on the
other. The two parent-elements are the longest
lived, and preserve the strain of their less enduring
children throughout the ages, over periods which
exceed those covered even by the utmost estimates
of the duration of geological time.

Radium is but one of the products of the uranium
series, and its special interest is chiefly to be ascribed
to the fact that the rate at which it changes, esti-
mated as one-two thousand five hundredth part per


annum, is so slow that over ordinary periods of
time it is imperceptible, and yet so rapid that the
amount of energy continuously evolved is, considering
the excessively minute quantity of matter, truly
astonishing. The other members of the series which
change more rapidly possess a radioactivity which,
though it is more intense, is more ephemeral. More-
over, the quantity of each member of the series,
coexisting with its parent, is proportional to its
period of life. For it is a balanced or equilibrium
quantity, when the rate of formation equals the rate
of change. The more quickly changing members
never accumulate in ponderable quantity and, for
them, it is impossible to prove, by the older methods
of science, that they are, indeed, new elementary
substances, possessing distinct chemical character,
atomic weight and spectrum. For radium, though
the proportion in which it exists in the richest
uranium mineral is exceedingly minute, it is just
possible to obtain enough to weigh and to prepare
in a pure condition for chemical examination.

The most slowly changing members, on the other
hand, are the parent-elements, uranium and thorium,
which were well- studied by chemists for a century, so
feeble is their radioactivity and so slow their rate ol
disintegration, without a suspicion that, in them,
the oft-suspected process of the evolution of the
elements was still in progress before their eyes.

There is a certain quality of permanence about
experimental scientific discovery which is not always
believed. An important addition to experimental
knowledge, whether made in the time of Robert
Boyle or yesterday, is never displaced. Points of
view may change, theories interpreting and explain-
ing experimental knowledge may have their periods
of adolescence, maturity and decline, but the frame-
work of the structure, the experimental fact round


which ideas are arranged, is too well and truly laid
to fear demolition. Even when, as in the present
day, the foundations of science are shifted to an
ever deeper and more fundamental plane the ex-
perimental basis of fact is unthreatened. The idea
that the whole edifice of chemical science was totter-
ing to its fall as the result of the discovery of the
intra-atomic changes of the radio-elements, is one
that has always been too absurd to call for reply.
But for that science and its clear-cut conception of
the chemical elements, the result of more than three
centuries of continuous experimental labour, the facts
of radioactivity might still have been as arresting
and magnificent as any discoveries ever were. But
without the older knowledge, exquisitely and finely
wrought, for the newer knowledge to dovetail into
and complete, the chief human significance of the
new science and its power to interpret the physical
side of the drama of life could scarcely have been
so early perceived.

Radium, no longer a mystery, one of the chemical
elements doing what more than a score are doing
at their own characteristic rates, owes its peculiar
position to the fact that it is changing neither too
slowly nor too quickly in reference to the allotted
span of threescore years and ten. Energy of the
order of a million times that evolved in the combus-
tion of the same weight of coal, instead of being,
as in the case of radium, evolved in the average
period of 2500 years, is in the case of uranium and
thorium spread over a term of thousands of millions
of years. The effects are small but enduring, and,
almost imperceptible in themselves, come to maturity
in due time in the cosmical calendar. Small as is
the proportion of uranium and thorium in the rocks
of the earth, the energy they evolve is estimated
to be far more than the earth loses to outer space,


if the surface composition of the rocks is maintained
uniformly throughout the core. Unless this is not
the case, or unless the energy they evolve is being
utilised in unknown ways, the conclusion follows
that the interior of the globe must be getting hotter
instead of colder. The uncomfortable prediction of
the ultimate destruction of the world by fire, is now
at least as probable as the former fate pictured by
science, that the world must be steadily cooling,
and that it was only a matter of time before it
became lifeless and dead.

The clock wound up in the beginning to run for
a certain time, a universe provided at its creation with
a certain store of available energy to dissipate and
live by at an ever decreasing rate, until it arrived
ultimately and inevitably at complete physical stagna-
tion and death, is being displaced by a less arbitrary
view as science advances and invades more and more
the vast territory still beyond its ken. It is at
least legitimate to conceive a universe of permanent
regime, carrying in its smallest ultimate particles
the seeds of its own regeneration. But the linking
of the ends of the process together into such a
closed cycle still involves the assumption of events
that remain unknown and a reversal of the known
continuous direction of energy transformations.
Such a reversal may well occur under conditions
still, and possibly for ever, beyond the power of
experiment to reproduce in the laboratory.

The dream of the alchemist, the transmutation
of the elements, so far from being a chimerical idea,
or a process to be sought for possibly in the trans-
cendental chemistry of glowing suns, is in con-
tinuous natural operation on the earth amongst the
most complex sorts of atoms known to the chemist.
All heavy elements, presumably, if they could be
transmuted artificially into lighter ones, would evolve



energy on the same scale as uranium, thorium and
radium. Such transmutations are still beyond the
power of man to effect, but he would be a bold
prophet who would declare for how long a time this
may remain true.

If the ancient legend of a philosopher's stone
ever becomes reality, and if means are found for
artificially transmuting the elements, or artificially
increasing to a sufficient extent the natural rate of
their disintegration, the transmutation of the material
would be of little significance compared with the
liberation of a source of energy immensely more
abundant and powerful than any now available.
As foretold of the philosopher's stone, transmutation
would be, in a physical sense, the veritable elixir
of life.

The gulf of ignorance which alone divides us
from the use and application of the new source of
energy would have been bridged. Exhaustion of
the coal-supply would no longer have any terrors,
for fuel and fuel-fed machines would be superseded,
as they in their turn have displaced animal labour.
The Ship of Life would have drawn out for ever from
the shallows and backwaters wherein it took its
origin, and, fairly launched on the primal tide, the
flood would bear it far. The story of the struggle
for existence on a daily modicum of sunlight, the
fevered existence of the moment on ever-increasing
draughts from a dwindling store, the meaning of
which was no sooner realised than it was in danger
of exhaustion, would become as the nightmare of
the past. Reality and myth would exchange places.
For, in sober truth, if one attempted to forecast,
from the experience of the past, the future of a
world able to draw at will upon a virtually infinite
supply of energy, one would be compelled to depict
it simply as a veritable Garden of Eden.


The Garden of Eden with its tree of knowledge
of which Adam partook impiously, and was cast
adrift to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow,
lest he should discover and partake of the tree of
life, and the whole biblical account of the fall of
man, though very ancient as human records go,
dates only from yesterday in the whole life of the race.
Men have lived on this planet not for thousands
but for millions of years past, and of all this length
of time myth and history record but the latest
moment. Did some earlier race of men actually
tread the road we are treading to-day and achieve
that emancipation from the physical struggle for
existence which would assuredly result from the
accomplishment of artificial transmutation? The
idea may appear a fanciful one, but it may be reason-
ably commended to the notice of those who have
made a special study of the ancient mythologies and
the origins of human beliefs.

The exploiters of the wealth of the world are not
its creators. If they were they might have a wider
view than that it was created for the competitive
acquisition of the most rapacious, unscrupulous and
already too well-equipped. The actual state of the
world at home and abroad in regard to industry,
politics, social conditions and relationships is surely
an indictment of, the rule of the possessive and
acquisitive more powerful than any judge could

The claim is so often made that brains and
labour are only two of the three essentials of civilised
existence, and that the third, if not the greatest
of these, is capital, that one may well ask what is
meant. If capital means wealth, that is, the accumu-
lated resources of the world in knowledge and material
achievements, the statement is true. If it means
the ownership of wealth, without which brains, labour


and knowledge are all unproductive, the statement is
only too true. But if it means the individual system of
ownership of wealth, and that under another system
brains, labour and knowledge would be powerless to
advance humanity, the statement is not true. From
the point of view of the community, capital is not
wealth but debt, the not owning by the community
of the resources of the planet whereon it resides ; and
no more effective and disastrous check to its pro-
ductive power could well be invented.

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 2 of 18)