An open Web site launched on August 16 highlights the pervasive role of isotopes in modern life. Isotopes Matter [] is aimed at students in secondary or post-secondary levels of education, but just about anyone with a passing interest in chemistry should find something of interest at the site.   

As an introductory example, visitors are greeted with the image of Otzi the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old mummified corpse that was found in the southern Alps 25 years ago. The details of this individual’s life — his health, his diet, the source of his clothing — were unravelled with the help of isotopes that have found their way into a broad array of practical applications. From intricate scientific measurements, such as gauging ambient temperatures from a million years ago, to intimate medical therapy that is possible with real-time biochemical monitoring of cancerous tumours, we continue to find innovative ways of employing these elemental variants.

Isotopes Matter is the result of a two-year collaboration between the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS), located at King’s University in Edmonton. 

“This was a unique collaboration between world-class isotope scientists and educators and the undergraduate interdisciplinary research team at KCVS that created the visualizations and educational material,” says King’s Chemistry Professor Peter Mahaffy, who co-directs KCVS and co-chaired the IUPAC project task force that created the site.

The result includes a free interactive electronic IUPAC periodic table displaying the many different features and applications of isotopes, along with supporting materials that guide through the use of the table and the scientific evidence on which it is based. 

“We were hearing from instructors and students that they needed help using interval atomic weights and also understanding the sheer variety of isotopes found on the periodic table, along with the many different things they can do,” Mahaffy recalls. “We wanted to give them something that would be interactive and engaging, but with deep, authoritative content.”

The Isotopes Matter initiative was led and reviewed by IUPAC members from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, all of whom were dedicated to creating a reference source that would be suitable for use at secondary and post-secondary levels of education, as well as by the general public.

Isotopes Matter was officially launched at the International Conference on Chemistry Education in Kuching, Malaysia, where Mahaffy introduced the project

“I’m eager to share this powerful resource with a global audience that will disseminate it to teachers and students around the world,” he concluded.

Graphic by Mckenzie Oliver, a research student at KCVS