Frederick Soddy’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1922
I wish to thank you for the very great honour which you have paid to my country, to the University of which I am a member, and to my students and myself, by the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for 1921. In the first place, the preparation of the Nobel lecture which I am to give has shown me, even more clearly than I knew before, how many others share with me, often, indeed, have anticipated me, in the discoveries for which you have awarded me the prize. Secondly, I should like to recall that the two former British Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Sir Ernest Rutherford and Sir William Ramsay were both my masters, and it is under them I received my training in scientific investigation. So that it is peculiarly gratifying to me to be chosen to receive the same honour as my distinguished teachers.
I take it almost as a personal compliment that Sweden so soon has donned her winter dress, for this work began for me with Rutherford in Canada, at Montreal, and the appearance of Stockholm today vividly recalls to me those early and exciting years. Ever since, I have felt that winter in the North speaks to the spirit of man with something of the appeal of Science. Nature is in austere mood, even terrifying, withal majestically beautiful. The pure air and dazzling snow belong to things beyond the reach of all personal feeling, almost beyond the reach of life. Yet such things are a part of our life, neither the least noble nor the most terrible.
It is appropriate, therefore, that this unique benefaction, which Science owes to Alfred Nobel, should be in the gift of Sweden and that Stockholm should be its home. Nowhere else, I am sure, in the whole world will one find, from the highest to the lowest, so eager a welcome for, or such universal appreciation of, the intellectual values that it was Nobel’s desire to honour and advance.
The proposer of this toast has paid today generous tributes to the work of the new laureates, for which we all must feel, as I do, profoundly grateful. But he has touched also on the darker side of the picture. As a scientific man I wish to acknowledge and accept my own share of responsibility and blame for this. As scientific men we have all, no doubt, felt that our work has been put often to base uses, which must lead to disaster. But what sin is to the moralist and crime to the jurist so to the scientific man is ignorance. On our plane knowledge and ignorance are the immemorial adversaries.
Scientific men can hardly escape the charge of ignorance with regard to the precise effect of the impact of modern science upon the mode of living of the people and upon their civilisation. For them, such a charge is worse than that of crime.
The catastrophe which has recently engulfed the world has, however, not been without its own intellectual renaissance. The effects are not yet apparent, but, at least, perhaps not all of us are now totally blind to the dangers ahead, or to the need of that impersonal but remorseless re-examination of the foundations of society, which Science has already applied to the mechanism of the physical universe. Possibly it may fail. Perhaps it may be too late. Even so, yet I cherish the fancy that, whatever may happen in the crowded and fevered countries that are still ranged in fratricidal animosity, here at least, here in the Northlands, truth will endure.