Radium and the Secret of Life

Radium and the Secret of Life

Luis Campos

Long before the atomic bomb indelibly associated radioactivity with death, many physicists, botanists, and geneticists were eagerly remarking that radium held the key to the secret of life. In this manuscript project, Luis Campos examined 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, the nature of mutation, and the structure of the gene. Studies of these three revealing cases form the core of this project as Campos examined how radium served for successive experimenters as vitalizer, stimulant, mutagen, and atomic tool.

By critically engaging with the texts, narratives, and images generated both by scientists and by commentators of the day—from the discovery of radium in 1898 to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953—Luis Campos examined the half-life of this connection between the living and the radioactive. The earliest roots of this radium/life nexus could be found in the earliest biological metaphors and metaphysics of early radioactivity research; in the popular radium craze of the first decade of the twentieth century; and in pre-existing discursive modes (such as the “electricity/life” and “living atoms” traditions) that were easily subsumed under the new radioactive umbrella.

By detailing the emergence of this ever-sporting connection between radium and life and by tracing some of the ways in which it transmuted over the decades, Luis Campos sought to go beyond a standard cultural history of radioactivity and mutation research. His project looked to uncover not only the important “prehistory” to the later and better-known interwar and postwar fascination with experimental radiobiology and mutation studies, but also to show how some of the guiding tropes linking radioactivity and life in time themselves became constitutive of new scientific theories and practices. This swapping of metaphors and metaphysics, terminology and technique, between the realms of the radioactive and the living (and those who studied both) proved enormously fruitful and conditioned the continuing use of radium in evolutionary and genetic research for years to come.