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What do you do with 100 year old radium samples?

Monday 3 June 2013, 12:50

Louise Yeoman Louise Yeoman

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Radium Days You can’t just put them in a display case in a museum, as health and safety might like a word with you and members of the public tend to fancy not being irradiated. It’s been a challenge for Glasgow University, as they’re lucky enough to have rare samples from the dawn of the nuclear age. The radioactive relics belonged to Professor Frederick Soddy who did much of his finest work at the University. Soddy won the Nobel prize for his 1913 discovery of isotopes - the subtly different forms of elements which have the same chemical properties but different atomic weights. It’s a discovery used today for all kinds of intricate detective work by doctors, physicists and even archaeologists - isotopes can be used for everything from dating ancient rocks to figuring out what mummies from a desert burial site might have eaten for lunch.



So these historic samples in their glass tubes aren’t just scientific objects - they’re valuable history. They’re rare because so many early samples were thrown away as hazardous nuclear waste, and they’re still radioactive, so they can’t be treated as harmless antiques. Frederick Soddy used to take out samples like this to delight the Glasgow crowds at public lectures and to explain, long before there were such things as nuclear power stations, how radium could potentially fuel the future. But can his wonderful demonstrations be used to teach us today?


For our programme Radium Days writer Louise Welsh went along to a secret laboratory in Glasgow to meet David Sanderson, professor of Environmental Physics at Glasgow, and to see the historic samples in action with modern radiological protection to keep her safe. The results were impressive!

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