Before the hydrogen bomb indelibly associated radioactivity with death, many chemists, physicians, botanists, and geneticists believed that radium might hold the secret to life. Physicists and chemists early on described the wondrous new element in lifelike terms such as "decay" and "half-life," and made frequent references to the "natural selection" and "evolution" of the elements. Meanwhile, biologists of the period used radium in experiments aimed at elucidating some of the most basic phenomena of life, including metabolism and mutation.
From the creation of half-living microbes in the test tube to charting the earliest histories of genetic engineering, Radium and the Secret of Life highlights previously unknown interconnections between the history of the early radioactive sciences and the sciences of heredity. Equating the transmutation of radium with the biological transmutation of living species, biologists saw in metabolism and mutation properties that reminded them of the new element. These initially provocative metaphoric links between radium and life proved remarkably productive and ultimately led to key biological insights into the origin of life, the nature of heredity, and the structure of the gene. Radium and the Secret of Life recovers a forgotten history of the connections between radioactivity and the life sciences that existed long before the dawn of molecular biology.
Luis A. Campos is associate professor of the history of science at the University of New Mexico.
"Biologists, physicists, public intellectuals, and popularizers in the first half of the twentieth century all asked themselves some form of the question: is radium alive? In this thorough and challenging study, Luis Campos not only chronicles and contextualizes their many divergent answers, but also accounts for the gradual irrelevance of the question. Valuable as a straightforward intellectual history of radium in the life sciences, and in particular for the light it sheds on little-studied episodes like Burke's sensational claim to have detected radium-induced life, this is also a thought-provoking meditation on the place of metaphor in science and the history of science."
– Matthew Lavine, author of The First Atomic Age
"Radium and the Secret of Life probes the experimental and metaphorical connections between transmutation and mutation. As that coupling makes clear, it was a book waiting to be written. Campos provides a deeply researched, engagingly written, and provocatively argued history of this potent conjunction, and how it disintegrated so fully as to be nearly forgotten."
– Angela Creager, author of Life Atomic