To that august list can now be added a historic cache of radioactivity, which has been saved from the dump after protests from professors forced a last-minute U-turn by the University of Glasgow.
The ancient box of radium and other radioactive materials collected by the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Frederick Soddy, had been destined for burial in a nuclear waste dump in England.
However, in the face of fierce opposition from scientists in the past few days, the university has relented. Instead, it is now considering putting the box on display behind leaded glass at its Hunterian Museum.
Soddy worked at Glasgow University between 1904 and 1914, and was one of the early pioneers in understanding radioactivity. He was the first to describe different forms of the same element as isotopes, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1921 for his work.
He left behind in Glasgow a plain wooden box containing 11 glass vials of radioactive samples, regarded by scientists as “unique and priceless”. One vial of radium is thought to have been given to him by Marie Curie, who helped discover radioactivity and won two Nobel prizes.
Known as Soddy’s Box, it has been carefully looked after by radiation scientists at the University of Glasgow for the past 100 years. But at the beginning of last week, university authorities were contemplating throwing it away.
The news spread fast among radiation scientists and provoked an angry chorus of protest. It would have been an act of “scientific vandalism”, said Professor Murdoch Baxter, formerly a lecturer in environmental radiochemistry at Glasgow University and a leading international radiation scientist.
“Scientists and public throughout the world would be horrified to know that such historic artefacts were being disposed of,” he told The Herald.
He said it would betray a “lack of appreciation of the university’s own unique history” and would be “an insult to its past radiochemical practitioners, placing a huge question mark over its intellectual integrity”.
Mr Baxter was responsible for the safe storage and preservation of Soddy’s Box in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Yes, it was a bit radioactive, but mildly so by nuclear industry standards,” he said.
David Sanderson, professor of environmental physics at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride, described the university’s initial plan as “expensive, controversial, and destructive disposal of important and irreplaceable samples”. Samples of early 20th-century radium were “extremely rare”, he said.
Professors Baxter and Sanderson are happy the university has now changed its mind. “We’re very pleased about this,” said Mr Sanderson. “There are of course questions about how to curate material of this nature, but thankfully, it is in safe keeping for the time being.”
Another former Glasgow University radiation scientist, Keith McKay, posted a plea to keep Soddy’s Box on an online forum. “Samples which were priceless and unique when produced, will now be destroyed with no option for retrievable storage,” he wrote. He congratulated the university for saving Soddy’s Box. “It has seen sense and decided not to give this precious historical artefact an ignominious end,” he said.
The University of Glasgow confirmed it had had a change of heart, but declined to explain why it had considered disposing of the radioactive samples in the first place. It is unclear whether it was trying to save money, or had some other motive.
“We have been considering the future of the radioactive materials left to us by Frederick Soddy,” said a university spokesman. “As part of the process, our radiation protection service officers investigated the possibility of safely disposing of the materials but, given their historic importance, the decision was ultimately made to keep the materials at the university, most likely as part of the Hunterian collection.”
When asked why disposal was considered, a spokesman added: “We looked at the future of the collection and ultimately decided to keep it.”