Thesis ID: CBB001560573

Radium and the Secret of Life (2006)


Campos, Luis Andres (Author)

Harvard University
Mendelsohn, Everett

Publication Date: 2006
Edition Details: Advisor: Mendelsohn, Everett
Physical Details: 483 pp.
Language: English

Long before the atomic bomb indelibly associated radioactivity with death, many physicists, botanists, and geneticists were remarking that radium held the secret of life. This dissertation examines the multifold connections in the first half of the twentieth century between early radioactivity research and contemporary understandings of vitality, both scientific and popular. As some physicists early on described the wondrous new element radium and its radioactive brethren in lifelike terms ('decay,' 'half-life,' and frequent reference to the 'natural selection' and 'evolution' of the elements), many biologists of the period eagerly sought to bring radium into the biological fold. They did so with experiments aimed at elucidating some of the most basic phenomena of life, including metabolism and mutation, and often saw in these phenomena properties that in turn reminded them of the new element. These initially provocative metaphysical and discursive links between radium and life proved remarkably productive in experimental terms and ultimately led to key biological insights into the origin of life (J. Butler Burke), the effects of radiation (C. Stuart Gager), the nature of mutation (Albert F. Blakeslee), and the structure of the gene (Hermann J. Muller). Studies of these four revealing cases form the core of the dissertation, as I examine how radium served for successive experimenters as vitalizer, stimulant, mutagen, and atomic tool. Reflecting a distinctive overlapping of metaphor and metaphysics; of terminology and technique; and of the living, nonliving, and half-living, these fruitful connections between radium and life (and those who studied both) conditioned the continuing use of radium, and later radiation more generally, in evolutionary and genetic research for years to come. By tracing the half-life of these several related experimental systems over time, I demonstrate how some of the guiding tropes linking radioactivity and life interacted with fundamental technological and conceptual shifts to constitute and reconstitute theories and experimental practices alike. Time after time as the first half of the twentieth century unfolded, the radium/life nexus---in a variety of directions and manners---transmuted.


Description “This dissertation examines the multifold connections in the first half of the twentieth century between early radioactivity research and contemporary understandings of vitality, both scientific and popular.” Case studies of Herman Muller, Albert Blakeslee, J. B. Burke, and C. S. Gager. (from the abstract) Cited in Diss. Abstr. Int. A 67/05 (2006): 1888. UMI pub. no. 3217685.

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Authors & Contributors
Rentetzi, Maria
Campos, Luis A.
Oszajca, Paulina
Candela, Andrea
Slaughter, Aimee Chantel Esther
Zhang, Feng
NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Atti e Memorie, Rivista di Storia della Farmacia
Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia
Physics in Perspective
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
University of Chicago Press
Oxford University Press
Obrador Edèndum, PURV; Santa Coloma de Queralt: Edèndum Obrador, Purves
Columbia University Press
University of Minnesota
Experiments and experimentation
Science and economics
Curie, Pierre
Rutherford, Ernest, 1st Baron
Curie, Marie Sklodowska
Mawson, Douglas
Joliot-Curie, Irène
Joliot-Curie, Frédéric
Time Periods
20th century, early
20th century
19th century
United States
Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung, Berlin-Buch
Solvay Conferences

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