Sunday, May 6, 2012

DAWSON & RADIOACTIVITY : conceived on the same day (Nov 8 1895) ?

   Dr Martin Henry Dawson was born on August 6th 1896 and was conceived about 9 months earlier.
    Early November 1895, in all likelihood.
    About the very same time ,in fact, when Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally discovered X-Rays (November 8th 1895).
    This event, in turn, led almost immediately (less than three months later) to the discovery of spontaneous radioactivity - perhaps the single most astounding discovery in science in the 19th century.

    Spontaneous (and random and unpredictable) radioactivity, it was determined after much effort, was merely the visible sign of an even more astounding natural event: atoms of one element in the process of becoming atoms of another element.
   Alchemy's magic of transmutation, brought to life.
   Think of it : what can that familiar chemist's word - elemental - possibly mean if not 'fundamental' and 'indivisible' and 'stable' ?
   Now all that had seemed universal and eternal and stable was revealed to be but a passing fancy.
   And it happened, not as Science said all Reality happened, IE in a deterministic way, but rather merely upon Mother Nature's whim !
   The certitudes of two thousand years of science, philosophy and mathematics trembled.
   Most people successfully ignored radioactivity's strange implications for how all Mankind understood Reality to focus instead on its superficial charms.
 Until that morning in Hiroshima, on August 6th 1945, (which would have been - strange coincidence - Dawson's 49th birthday) when 'all this strange radioactivity stuff'  reared up and destroyed an entire metropolitan city,  with but a single bomb.
   Now the entire world sat up and finally paid full notice - almost 50 years to the day from the original discovery.
    A few - too few - even sat down that summer day to really ponder the philosophic implications of radioactivity's spontaneity and thus ipon its ability to destroy our sense of how we had thought the Universe worked.
  Pity that : because this was an ability far beyond even its now proven powers to destroy life and matter.
   Dr Dawson's lifework was not  at allabout radioactivity - but as it happened his life spanned radioactivity's critical first years almost exactly : something that makes things much easier for the biographer of Dawson or of Radioactivity.
    Yet Dawson was involved in 'transmutation', as it happens, in fact involved in a fundamentally critical way.
   But not radioactivity's transmutation of matter and energy (the stuff of Physics and Chemistry) but rather in DNA's transmutation of life and organization (the stuff of Biology).
   The only beings that can as yet (humanity is working on it) transmutate DNA and hence Life are the microbes - and the lives of microbes was Dawson's lifework.
   The research that led to the discovery of what Dawson called  'bacterial transformation' (of DNA) began like the story of radioactivity in the mid-1890s.
 Questions began to be asked about cases of bacterial variations so extreme as to sound more like the spontaneous creation of new species and a mere variation on a given theme.
   But in orthodox biology circles that was a big no-no:  had not Darwin himself said the creation of a new species would take millions of years to emerge, not an hour or two ?
   The most unsettling implications of Dawson's work - like radioactivity's most profound implications - were successfully ignored then - in fact, still are.
   If 1945 was the year of Auschwitz , the A-bomb and of Penicillin, it was also the year of transformative DNA as well  : annus mirabilis indeed ...

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