Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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He sees causes at work where another sees only
confused effects. His education is only beginning


where that of a man, who has achieved breadth
without depth, ends. He is curious, his relative
ignorance of other subjects than his own, and their
freshness to his mind, make him so, whereas the
other is satiated with imperfectly appreciated subjects
which he thinks he knows, and he becomes dull.

I do not express myself on this matter as strongly
as I might, because I know that I am against a
tradition which in the past has paid. If I express
an opinion at all it is because I cannot see, in the
more strenuous times of the future, any chance of
its continuing to pay, either in Scotland or else-
where. The day of the amateur Jack-of-all-trades
and master of none whether in government and
administration, teaching, industry or commerce,
seems to be definitely terminating as each country
becomes less and less a self-contained community
and more and more open to the competition of the
world. If specialists are not turned out we shall be
dependent upon them for the foreigner. I have no
great assurance, in spite of the present revulsion of
feeling, that ten years hence will not see our
industries dominated by foreign chemists again, not
because of any defect in the British chemist, but
because of the appalling ignorance on the part of his
employer and his total inability, engendered by his
training, to appreciate what is new, not as some-
thing to be added on and made to accommodate itself
to the old, but as replacing and totally expunging it.

The bursary system is one of the most potent
factors in preserving the education of so many of
our students upon traditional lines. Intended as an
encouragement to picked students to come to the
university to continue their studies and complete
their preparation for life, it has become a bribe to
them to continue studies which otherwise would
attract only a few, and those mainly to whom the


necessity of earning- a living- in the modern world is
not paramount.

The linguistic and historical group of studies are
a common part of all general education. It is not
these subjects in themselves but the spirit in which
they are taught that the cause lies for criticism.
Many people must have felt the humiliation abroad
of being- conversed to in their own language by a
foreigner who has never set foot in this country. I
envy the lads in modern technical colleges who are
given a grip of the calculus, as a tool rather than a
philosophy, at the time when my own efforts were
being dissipated on the most useless and uninterest-
ing parts of mathematics. I often say that I could
not without a serious preparation pass the entrance
examination into any university in the kingdom. It
is idle to pretend that these are in any sense tests of
a decent general school education, as they should be.
It is supposed to be general, but is too often so highly
specialised that no one, whatever his education, could
pass it ten years after leaving school or college, with-
out specially studying for it. Once, in some spare
time, I entertained the idea of sitting the London
University Matriculation Examination until I found
that the English demanded was not what an ordinary
man would think was meant, but an obsolete form
of it, dating from the time of Chaucer and earlier, a
most excellent and repaying subject no doubt for
those who require it, but as far removed as Latin
and Greek are from being evidence of a general

If the school curriculum were entirely recast along
modern lines and subjected by unprejudiced experts to
a thorough investigation, as is being done in some of
the institutions for educational research in America,
in order to eliminate what is unnecessary and retro-
grade, the school period ought to suffice to give


every child of the standard of intelligence admitting
to the university so thorough and sufficient a general
education that, at the university, the serious life-work
could be entered upon at once. A modernised school
curriculum, finally and completely liberated from
the deadening influence of the Middle Ages, would
bring a child up to the university with something of
that enthusiasm and passion for knowledge for its
own sake which, of yore, was the pride of Scotland's
poor scholars. "Cultural" subjects would remain,
throughout life, the natural recreation from pro-
fessional or highly specialised studies. The chief
charge against the old curricula is that they destroy
in youth the enthusiasm and aspiration for learning,
without which educational systems are but useless
machinery without motive power.

In experimental science in Scotland the greatest
need for reform exists. The association of the
Honours M.A. with the B.Sc. so favours certain
subjects, especially mathematics and applied mathe-
matics, by giving two degrees for little more than
the work of either, that it has been a powerful factor
in the neglect of experimental science. It is nearly
incredible, but, until very recently here, and possibly
elsewhere still, those who took this combination and
were for the most part going to be science school-
masters, were turned out to teach chemistry in
schools without, of necessity, ever having worked in
a chemical laboratory. What sort of chemistry, I
wonder, is it that they hand on to their pupils. The
science of the mathematical arts man with M.A.
(Hon.), B.Sc., is too often such as is calculated to
bring science into disrepute.

But it is on the financial side that this university
is most open to criticism in its treatment of science.
An investigation of the published accounts for 1913-
14, the year prior to the war, explained much that


hitherto had been a mystery to me and left me frankly
astounded. I have formed the deliberate opinion
that it is useless for benefactors, like Mr Carnegie,
to give money for science and scientific research,
because under the existing- system it will be diverted.
Chemistry here would have been actually better off
under the system that was in vogue before 1889.
The wealth that has poured into the coffers of the
university, either from the Carnegie benefaction or
from State grants, passes it by. 1 It supports itself
practically by hard teaching, and the money it is
stated in the published accounts to get, and which,
if it did get, would enable something to be done on
the research side, are mere book-keeping trans-
actions. Either this must be rectified or, before
science can take its proper place in Scotland, new
universities for science and modern subjects must
be founded.

But apart from the petty tricks and sophistries
by which those who claim to guard the eternal
verities against the encroach of modern heresies
have secured to themselves the benefit of monies
intended for scientific study and research, the general
attitude of this country toward science, whether
from dullness, ignorance or antipathy, is unworthy
of it. Of all the great nations of the earth none
have benefited more by scientific discovery, and none
have repaid the debt in more beggarly fashion. To
boast of what this country has done in science as
compared with other nations would be to follow the
bad example of Germany. To boast of what this
country has done for science as compared with other
great powers would be impossible. But it is legitimate
patriotism to be very proud and satisfied that, in spite
of the lack of adequate encouragement and support,
this, country can claim no mean or subordinate share

1 See Appendix.


in scientific developments even up to the present

I have laid these matters before the Scientific
Association, not in any spirit of destructive criticism,
but because they affect fundamentally and vitally
your careers. It is upon you, rather than upon me
or upon science, that the penalty falls.


THE ultimate constitution of matter is a subject
which has always exercised a powerful attraction
upon the minds of men. Philosophical speculations
of the essential unity of all matter and of the
possibility of transforming the different kinds into
one another have come down to us from the
ancients. The modern science of Chemistry had
its origin in the actual attempts at such transforma-
tion or transmutation made by the alchemists in the
Middle Ages. These attempts centred around the
transmutation of lead or other base metal into gold,
and the alchemists believed that there existed, and
spent their lives trying to discover, a "philosopher's
stone" to which was ascribed the power to effect
this transmutation in almost unlimited amount.
The philosopher's stone was also credited with
acting as a universal medicine, prolonging life and
health indefinitely, or at least to periods rivalling
those enjoyed by the Hebrew patriarchs of old.
Whether these ideas were wholly the inventions of
charlatans, or whether they were the distorted
parrot-like repetition of the wisdom of a lost Atlantis,
none can now say. But it may be remarked that
sober modern science of to-day sees in the power
to effect transmutation of the elements the power
to prolong the physical welfare of the community
for indefinite periods. Indeed, without some such
discovery the phase of civilisation, ushered in by

1 Contributed to the Aberdeen University Review, February 1917.

85 N


science, must from its very nature be but transitory.
We are spending improvidently in a year the
physical means of life that would have sufficed our
ancestors for a century, and the exhaustion of the
available supplies of energy, upon which the present
era of the world relies, is already no longer a re-
motely distant prospect.

So long as the world was supposed to be six
days older than man, and man a creature of the
last 6000 years, the idea that we were " the first
that ever burst " into the silent sea of science was
pardonable enough. Possibly we were not. Just
as no one would feel qualified to write a history
of this country from materials gleaned from the
newspapers of the present century, so no one ought
to be so bold as to attempt to write a history of
the human race from such written records as now
exist, the most ancient of which go back to a time
when the race was quite inappreciably younger
than it is to-day. Neither is there any very valid
ground for the belief that the startling advance
civilisation had made in the past hundred or so
years is in any way the climax or natural culmina-
tion of the slow and by no means even continuous
progress previously. It seems rather a sudden for-
ward leap apparently unconnected with and certainly
not culminating necessarily out of the periodic ebb
and flow of human fortune of which history tells.
It is the work of a mere handful of men. The mass
probably are little more scientific to-day than they
were two thousand years ago, and this being the
case, the advance does not appear to be the inaugura-
tion of the millennium, nor, indeed, of any other
prolonged period of stable regime. Nothing but
the most sublime egoism, the unconscious consti-
tutional disability of the natural man to conceive
of a universe not revolving around himself, can make


it appear improbable that what occurred so suddenly
and mysteriously in the past few centuries of re-
corded history may not have occurred before, not
once but perhaps many times during the vastly
longer period of which no record has yet been in-
terpreted. It is only right to consider the possibility
that the command exercised over Nature in the
twentieth century may have been attained, possibly
exceeded, previously.

However that may be, however slender may be
the justification for such a view, and still more how-
ever fanciful it may seem to seek that justification
in the rigmarole of alchemical charlatans of the
Middle Ages, the fact remains that science to-day
would ascribe to the problem of the ultimate con-
stitution of matter, and the practical achievement of
the problem of the transmutation of the elements,
an importance and significance that cannot but be
flattering to the instincts of the human mind over
which these problems have for so long exerted a
most powerful fascination.

Twenty years ago not a single valid fact was
known to science about transmutation. To-day we
may watch it going on, in the case of certain
elements, spontaneously before our eyes, as it
seems to have been going on, all unsuspected, from
the beginning of time.

But till 1896 the universal experience of physical
and chemical science was that the atoms of the
chemical elements are the ultimate constituents out
of which matter is built up and, in all processes
then known and in every kind of change that
matter undergoes, these remain unchanged and
unchangeable. What did Clerk Maxwell say?
The words of his British Association address at
Bradford in 1873 have often been quoted, but they
are so true, not only of the knowledge of his day,


but are still true of all processes known before
the fateful year 1896, that they may be recalled
again :

" Natural causes, as we know, are at work which
tend to modify, if they do not at length destroy, all
the arrangements and dimensions of the earth and
the whole solar system. But though in the course
of ages catastrophes have occurred and may yet
occur in the heavens, though ancient systems may be
dissolved and new systems evolved out of their
ruins, the molecules 1 out of which these systems
are built the foundation stones of the material
universe remain unbroken and unworn."

Modern chemistry has at hand incomparably
more powerful methods of experiment than were
known to the alchemist. But the foundation stones
of the material universe still remained unbroken
and unworn.

After having been attacked without success by
the alchemist with fanatical fervour and devotion,
after having eluded the utmost efforts of the chemist
to change them, until at last he had accepted his
defeat as the firm basis on which to build his science,
the eighty or so elements, that had been discovered
and recognised, possessed a reputation for per-
manence and unchangeability that was unique in the
whole universe of reality. Thus far and no further
into the analysis of matter experiment had pene-
trated. Beyond there was nothing but speculation
and imagination plenty of both, but not of much
value in science, apart from experimental knowledge,
and least of all, perhaps, in favour with the "sceptical
chemist." He knew the elements as a shepherd is
supposed to know his flock, their properties, the

1 Clerk Maxwell was a physicist. If he had been a modern
chemist he would have used the word atoms where he uses


compounds they form in such wealth and variety,
their spectra, and the relative weights of their atoms,
down to the merest minutiae and with an accuracy
unsurpassed in quantitative science.

He discovered the most curious family re-
semblances between them, some being so similar
in their whole character and so regular even in their
differences that no discipline of the imagination
could entirely suppress the private question, "What
are they ? " even though the memory of those early
heresies about transmutation and the unity of matter
made it bad form to romance about them. Lastly,
he made, when he put out the elements in the order
of the relative weights of their atoms beginning
with hydrogen, the lightest atom, and ending with
uranium, the heaviest a sweeping generalisation
about them known as the Periodic Law. Essentially
this is that nearly the whole of the properties of
the elements are periodically recurring functions of
their atomic weights. The tenth element in the
list has a close family resemblance to the second,
the eleventh to the third, the twelfth to the fourth,
and so on to the seventeenth which is like the
ninth. The eighteenth is like the second and
tenth, the nineteenth like the third and eleventh.
Hydrogen, the first element, stands alone and has
no analogues. After the twenty-second element,
titanium, a change in the nature of the periodicity
occurs, which becomes more complex. Another very
abrupt change occurs at the fifty-sixth element,
barium, when the rare-earth elements commence.
These, the next thirteen or fourteen elements, all
resemble one another with extreme closeness, in
direct contradiction to what occurs with the elements
both before and after them in the list. At the
seventy-third element, tantalum, the law departed
from at the fifty-sixth element is reverted to again


as if it had never been interrupted, and goes on
till the last element, uranium, is reached. This was
a veritable cryptogram challenging interpretation,
and although far from deciphered the first step in
the finding of the key has now been taken. The
Periodic Law is Nature as it is, not as we would
have it, or as we would have made it, if the making
of it had been ours. There are some curious minor
exceptions even in its very arbitrary regularities.
At first, also, gaps had to be left for missing elements
to satisfy the scheme, and so the existence of
elements not yet discovered, and even their very
properties, were predicted, and in the majority of
cases these predictions have been verified by the
subsequent discovery of the missing members.

With regard to the very simplest constituents,
into which the material universe has been resolved,
there is thus a veritable tangle of complex relation-
ships in contrast to that craving for simplicity,
symmetry, and order which the mind is always
attempting to satisfy in its interpretations of the
external world.

In 1896 one of the elements, uranium, the last on
the list, was discovered by Becquerel in Paris to
possess a new property. It was described as
radioactive to signify that it was continually and
spontaneously emitting a new kind of radiation,
analogous in its chief characteristics to the X-rays of
Rontgen, discovered the year previously. M. and
Mme. Curie then showed that thorium, the element
next to uranium in atomic weight, possessed a similar
property, but, with the doubtful exception of two
others, potassium and rubidium, none of the other
elements then known show the least evidence of
radioactivity. Going back to the natural minerals in
which uranium occurs, such as pitchblende, M. and
Mme. Curie discovered therein several intensely


radioactive new elements in almost infinitesimal
quantity, the best known of which is radium. The
radium is present in pitchblende in very minute
quantity, not more than one part in five or ten
millions of the mineral at most. Small as the
quantity was, they succeeded in isolating the com-
pounds of radium in the pure state, and ultimately
accumulated enough, not only for a detailed investi-
gation of its extraordinary radioactivity, but also of
its chemical character, spectrum, and atomic weight.
They found its atomic weight to be 226, which is
next to that of uranium, 238, and thorium, 234. This
and its chemical character put it into a position in
the periodic table in the family of the alkaline-earth
elements, comprising calcium, 40, strontium, 85, and
barium, 137. In its whole character it has the
closest resemblance to the latter element, and can
only be separated from it by prolonged and tedious
fractionation processes. Chemically it was normal in
every respect, and its chemical character could have
been predicted from the Periodic Law before its
discovery. But in addition to its chemical character
it had a whole new set of surprising radioactive
properties in a very intense degree.

These discoveries naturally aroused the very
greatest scientific interest. The very existence of
radium, a substance capable of giving off spontane-
ously powerful new radiations which can be trans-
formed into light and heat, and, indeed, not only
capable of doing this, but, so far as we know,
incapable of not doing it, ran counter to every
principle of physical science. For whence comes
the energy that is being given out in the process?
So soon as pure radium compounds became available,
the amount of this energy was measured and it was
found to be sufficient to heat a quantity of water
equal to the weight of the radium from the freezing-


point to the boiling-point every three-quarters of an
hour. In the combustion of fuel, from which the
world draws by far the greater part of the energy it
needs, the heat evolved is sufficient to raise a weight
of water some 80 to 100 times the weight of fuel
from the freezing-point to the boiling-point. Hence
radium, weight for weight, gives out as much heat as
the best fuel every three days, and in the fifteen years
that have elapsed since it was first isolated, a
quantity of energy nearly two thousand times as
much as is obtainable from fuel has been given out
by the radium, and the supply as yet shows no sign
of exhaustion.

Before, however, these questions could be asked
in this definite quantitative form they had been
answered, from a detailed investigation of the
radioactivity of the element thorium. Professor,
now Sir Ernest, Rutherford, at M'Gill University,
Montreal, and now at Manchester University, was
one of the leading and most active physicists in the
investigation of the new property, and, when the
writer joined him in Montreal in 1901, had made
a large number of very startling and fundamental
discoveries, and had developed the refined methods
of investigation and measurement which, more than
anything else, contributed to the rapid solution of the
problem. The apparently steady and continuous
outpouring of the radiations from thorium was found
to be a most complex process, in -which new substances
were being continually produced. These new sub-
stances are endowed with a temporary or transient
radioactivity, which in the course of time decays
away and disappears. Simple methods of chemical
analysis sufficed to remove from thorium altogether
infinitesimal quantities of substances, to which,
however, by far the greater part of the radioactivity
was due. After removal the activity of these sub-


stances steadily and continuously decayed. But the
thorium from which they had been removed and
which was thereby rendered nearly non-radioactive,
gradually recovered its original activity again.
Investigation proved that the thorium was in fact
continually growing a fresh crop of these radioactive
constituents. As fast as it was purified from them
by a chemical process, more began to form. The
quantities of material involved in these processes are
so minute that they are far beyond the limit of
detection by the balance or the spectroscope.
Indeed, it is estimated that geological epochs of time
would have to elapse in the case of thorium before
a weighable quantity of the new materials was formed.
Nevertheless the characteristic radioactivity they
produce enables them to be followed and dealt with
as easily, or perhaps more easily, than ordinary
substances in weighable amount. Moreover, in
certain cases the radioactive products are gases
called the radioactive emanations and in these cases
no chemical separation is needed, as they diffuse
away by themselves from the radioactive substance
into the surrounding air and are the cause of many
striking phenomena.

The doctrine of the unchangeableness of the
chemical elements is no fixed article of belief in the
chemists' creed, but is simply the expression of the
facts known before the discovery of radioactivity,
that in all material changes known the chemical
elements do not essentially change. When a chemical
element or one of its compounds is purified, it remains
pure unless it is again mixed with other substances.
The discovery that the radioactive substances are
continually producing from themselves entirely
different chemical elements overthrew the doctrine
of the unchangeableness of the elements so far as
those that are radioactive are concerned. Since



these new changes cannot yet be artificially produced
or imitated, the doctrine of the unchangeability of the
elements remains in this limited sense still true.

Sir Ernest Rutherford and the writer were forced
to the conclusion that the element thorium, and
ultimately all the radio-elements, are in the process

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 7 of 18)