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Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Secrets of Life full size An advertisement for Tho-Radia cosmetics, among the many consumer goods imbued with radioactive radium in the early 20th century. Before gene editing existed, even before widespread consensus that DNA contained genetic information, the humble fruit fly was domesticated as a tool for studying inheritance.


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In American biologist Hermann Muller had just begun to use radium to induce mutations in the flies. That year he shipped a vial of radium to one of his collaborators; but somewhere along the way the glass vial shattered, and the extremely expensive radium seeped into the crevices of its lead-lined container. A frustrated Muller abandoned radium and instead began irradiating his flies with X-rays.

In he published his Nobel Prize—winning results showing that X-rays caused genetic mutations in fruit flies, and the important role of radium in this research was subsequently forgotten. Radium has disappeared from biology labs and faded from our cultural imagination, but it is difficult to overstate the extraordinary impact of this element in the early 20th century. Radium is hugely radioactive, generates large amounts of heat, and is spontaneously luminous in certain compounds—attributes that captivated scientists and the wider public when the element was first discovered.

Radium and the Secret of Life, by Luis A. Campos | Times Higher Education (THE)

When Marie and Pierre Curie succeeded in isolating a pure sample of radium in , they noted another of its more striking properties: a tendency to infect other objects around it, rendering those objects radioactive as well. This transformative power provides an apt metaphor for tracing the historical impact of radium as it moved through and altered multiple areas of science and medicine.

In physics the discovery of radioactivity was unsettling; it disrupted foundational ideas about the nature of matter and cast doubt on seemingly incontrovertible laws. Radium appeared, for instance, to provide a perpetual source of energy, violating the law of conservation of energy. In medicine radium became a powerful new cancer therapy. Radium salts were applied topically to skin cancers or used internally to shrink tumors.

The result was a proliferation of radium-inspired consumer products, including radium water, radium bread, and even radium condoms. The occasional groan, however, did not detract from the overall pleasure of this book. Campos has a particularly deft touch for walking the reader through scientific [End Page ] debates.

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