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Sunday, June 24, 2007The Meaning Of Life
One afternoon in the early 1950s, a young biochemist left his suburban lab bench at Britain’s Mill Hill National Institute of Medical Research and boarded a tube train to Leicester Square. His destination was on nearby Lisle Street, in an area which today makes up part of London's glittering West End theatre district. But in the post-war years the sector was better known as a hectic hub for two of humanity's oldest professions. Only one of these was of interest to the young scientist. The girls hawking their wares seemed to sense his single-mindedness and kept their distance as the greenhorn scientist turned his attention to his true quarry: the vast abundance of second-hand military hardware that could be found in the shops lining Lisle Street.
Specifically, he was looking for war surplus radar equipment. His intention was to cannibalize a suitable radio frequency transmitter for the purpose of reanimating dead, frozen hamsters.
The purposeful young biochemist was working in an exciting field so new that it didn’t yet have an official name, although eventually the term "cryobiology"– literally meaning "frosty life"– gained currency. One of his colleagues at Mill Hill was Dr Audrey Smith, the leading light in a series of hamster freezing and reanimation experiments. These dramatic and oft-quoted experiments have since achieved legendary status among cryobiologists, including researchers of the credible variety and researchers of the we'll-freeze-your-head-and-bring-it- back-to-life-attached-to-the-body-of-a-spaniel-when-future-technology-allows variety. Yet they have never been repeated.
The basic procedure worked like this:
1. Obtain desired number of Golden Hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus).
2. Place in ice bath at temperature -5°C.
3. Leave hapless rodents to cool until hearts have stopped beating, respiration has ceased, animals are frozen rigid and are-– by any conventional definition of life– no longer alive.
4. After 60-90 minutes, remove hamsters from ice bath.
5. If required, cut sections of one or more control animals to determine degree of freezing. Please note– animals thus examined should not be used in subsequent reanimation attempts.
6. Warm the hearts of the frozen hamsters until they start up again, followed by gentle re-warming of the rest of the animal(s) until miraculous recovery occurs.
7. Determine number of survivors.
In the initial experiments, reanimation of the hamsters was carried out using the crude method of pressing a hot metal spoon against the animal's chest until circulation resumed. The important thing was to warm the heart first- the researchers soon found that simply placing the hamsters in a bath of warm water would lead to an over-rapid resumption of circulation, promptly stopping the heart again due to contact with the freezing cold blood returning from the animals' extremities. By applying heat to the heart first a more gradual and ultimately successful reanimation could take place.
But it was felt that the use of the hot metal spoons was a step too far; the burning and singing of the skin caused obvious distress to the reanimated animals. The purpose of the young biochemist's visit to Lisle Street was to make this aspect of the re-warming process more humane. By adapting an old aircraft radio frequency transmitter to emit microwaves, a diathermy device was made which could heat the hamsters’ hearts externally without damaging the skin in the same way a microwave oven cooks ready meals without melting the plastic container.
The astute scientist who pioneered this technique and later braved the whores of Lisle Street to find suitable equipment was a man named James Lovelock. In his autobiography Homage to Gaia he describes how his work on hamster-reanimation got him thinking about the meaning of life. According to conventional definitions of "life," the frozen hamsters were decidedly dead; the unfortunate rodents weren’t moving, they weren’t breathing, their hearts had stopped, and they certainly weren’t eating, drinking or reproducing. Yet they could be made almost as good as new with a little bit of hot-spoon or microwave therapy. He wondered if "life" might have a broader meaning. This set him on the path to the theory for which he is most well known: the Gaia Hypothesis.
James Lovelock with statue of Gaia in background. Photo (c) Comby InstituteThirteen years after he left the Mill Hill laboratories and the field of cryobiology, he finally published the landmark paper Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia Hypothesis with his biologist collaborator, Lynn Margulis. Gaia theory proposes the existence of a system of complex feedback mechanisms that work across the whole of the Earth’s surface; these involve both living and non-living parts of the biosphere which act to keep the chemistry and temperature of the planetary surface comfortable for life. In some important respects this entire system could be considered as akin to ‘living’ itself. Lovelock’s novelist friend William Golding found an appropriate name from Greek mythology: that of the Earth Goddess, Gaia.
At first the idea was met with disbelief– then with ridicule. To this day Gaia theory is still far from being universally accepted among the scientific community. Although Lovelock was careful to stress that his theory wasn't suggesting that the Earth was actually alive– only that the Earth system mimics a living, self-regulating entity in some ways– many scientists struggled with the analogy. For a start the Earth doesn’t eat or move purposefully, and it has never displayed any discernible interest in mating with neighbouring planets. It was a difficult concept to reconcile with the traditionalist view that something was alive only if it met certain established criteria, such as being capable of metabolism or growth.
Meanwhile cryobiology research continued. By the time Lovelock left Mill Hill in the early 1960s the freezing and successful reanimation of hamsters using microwave diathermy was almost routine. But there were limitations to the technique. For a start, the temperatures involved never went further than a few degrees below the freezing point of water and only for an hour or so at a time; although in some cases more than 80% of the water in the skin and 60% of the water in the brain had changed to ice, the animals were never 100% frozen. Thus most of the hamsters' cells were spared the tattering which is characteristic of full ice crystal formation.
The results were certainly dramatic, demonstrating that it is possible to lower complex organisms to below-freezing temperatures and then successfully reanimate them.
For 2,000 years, the document written by one of antiquity's greatest mathematicians was ill treated, torn apart and allowed to decay. Now, US historians have decoded the Archimedes book. But is it really new?
When the Romans advanced to Sicily in the Second Punic War and finally captured the proud city of Syracuse, one of their soldiers met an old man who, surrounded by the din of battle, was calmly drawing geometric figures in the sand. "Do not disturb my circles," the eccentric old man called out. The legionnaire killed him with his sword.
That, at least, is the legend.
The truth is a different story altogether. Placed in charge of King Hieron II's artillery equipment, Archimedes later played an important military role during the siege of Syracuse. He invented powerful catapults to defend his homeland, using cranes to hurl heavy boulders from the walls of the fortress at enemy ships. Mirrors were also used, it is said, to direct burning rays of sunlight at the Roman armada, setting the ships on fire. The Sicilians resisted the onslaught of the ambitious Roman republic for more than two years.
In short, had the legionnaire really speared the eccentric old man with his sword, he would have done the Romans a great service. In addition to being an oddball scholar, Archimedes was a skilled inventor of weapons.
How Many Grains of Sand
He was so skilled, in fact, that it almost seemed that he could stop Rome's large army single-handedly. But in the end Archimedes fell victim to brute force after all. One of the greatest inventors of all time, Archimedes was killed at the age of 73. His murder, notes British philosopher Paul Strathern, was "the Romans' only decisive contribution to mathematics."
Archimedes prepared the way for integral calculus and approximated the number Pi. He discovered the law of leverage and invented new formulas to calculate the properties of cylinders and spheres. He once yelled "Eureka" while bathing, after having dreamed up the concept of specific weight while splashing around. He even specified the number of grains of sand that could fit into the universe: 1063. Until then the Greeks had merely left it at a "myriad" (or 10,000).
FROM THE MAGAZINE
Find out how you can reprint this DER SPIEGEL article in your publication. "It took almost 2,000 years before anyone else could hold a candle to him," Strathern says about this extraordinary man, who lived from 285 to 212 B.C. But brilliance had its drawbacks. Archimedes was often so engrossed in thought that he would forget to eat -- and he bathed infrequently. But aside from that, researchers know little about this oddball from the early days of geometry and mechanics. Unfortunately many of his writings were lost, while the rest have been handed down in the form of Arabic and Latin copies. Vandals destroyed his famous planetarium, with its water-powered wheelworks.
But now a Greek original has been discovered after all. In "The Archimedes Codex," recently published in English, two US researchers describe the decoding of a manuscript from the early days of mathematics. It took the authors years of painstaking work to "extract the secrets from these faded letters.
With his traditional Mongolian wedding ceremony just around the corner, 56-year-old Bao Xishun, the world’s tallest man, has been busy looking for a bed that is large enough for his 2.36-m frame.
Bao and his bride, Xia Shujuan, registered their marriage on March 26. The ceremony is scheduled to take place in Chifeng, a city in the the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on July 21.
“Everything is ready for my wedding, except for a bed capable of fitting me at our new home,” Bao said last week after shopping around local furniture markets. The media have urged people to offer solutions to the dilemma.