Frederick Soddy - Chemist

Richard Sclove believes that Soddy’s upbringing had a large influence on his outlook and perception of the world. Soddy’s mother died when he was just 18 and his father was often away, so his older sister, who he often fought with, looked after him. His grandfather had been a missionary and his brother became a minister which meant that religion was an important aspect to household life while Soddy grew up. However he grew to reject religion after he began reading scientific work such as Darwin and he left home. He graduated from Oxford in 1898 with a first class honours in Chemistry, after this he struggled to find a job until moving to Canada where he taught the history of Chemistry. The course touched upon alchemy but he taught that it had nothing to do with the development of chemistry.

He began working with Ernest Rutherford with the aim of understanding the newly discovered phenomenon of natural radioactivity, and together they discovered that radioactive thorium was transforming into an inert gas - Soddy saw this as transmutation much like the alchemists believed in.

Sclove argues that Soddy’s views on alchemy changed before his discovery through the influence of other scientists such as Lockyer who wrote a paper on how stars had the ability to transmutate. Thus he argues that his inspiration of alchemy was what helped him to discover the evidence on earth of transmutation. The evidence for this being the potential that Soddy’s unpublished paper called Alchemy and Chemistry was written before his discovery in 1901. In the paper Soddy writes about how he hopes to learn to transmute elements at will and he reconceived his belief of the history of chemistry.

Soddy was also very aware as a scientist for the potential influence of the work surrounding radioactive elements. Especially after World War I he became aware that there was the probably progression towards making an atomic bomb, he foretold this in 1915. This was based upon scientific knowledge, awareness for the social climate and the belief that we once had the knowledge and technology to achieve a bomb and thus would have the knowledge to do so again, a cyclical belief of knowledge. The evidence for this belief of his can be found in his paper The Interpretation of Radium and his use of the alchemic symbol Ouroboros (the tail-eating serpent).  One example of him expressing this belief is the quote ‘Can we not read into … [ancient myths and superstitions] some justification for the belief that some forgotten race of men attained not only to the knowledge we have so recently won, but also to the power that is not yet ours?’

Soddy has also been praised for being a scientist who had a large role in public interaction, he often gave talks to non-scientific audiences.