Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Monday, August 06, 2007

Life & Death, etc.

The calendar is a funny thing. Dates overlap. Anniversaries, shared birthdays, that sort of thing.

6 August is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), the British bacteriologist who discovered the germ-killing power of penicillium notatum in 1928, when he noticed that a bit of the green mold accidentally growing in a culture plate in his laboratory had destroyed bacteria around it. From this, of course, came penicillin, the use of which helped greatly reduce deaths from wound infections during World War II.

The Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the same year Fleming would receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine. That day, thanks to another advance in science, between 70,000 and 100,000 people never came home.

In his speech at the Nobel Banquet that December, Fleming spoke of the part "chance, fortune, fate or destiny -- call it what you will" had played in the discovery and development of penicillin. Part of his point was that if events had not converged as they did, "in the midst of a great war when ordinary economics are in abeyance," the resources would not have been available for the drug's final development to proceed as it did; likewise, the development of the drug was then at a point when, given sufficient resources, manufacturing difficulties could be overcome in an incredibly short time and it could be produced on a large scale precisely when it was most needed.

My feelings get both drawn and nudged in two directions when I think about that confluence of circumstances and events. There does seem to be some sort of order underlying it all, yet such a ponderous and ironic one. Given the coincidences of the calendar, I can't help seeing his words in a sort of dark mirror. We can no more predict where a scientific discovery will go than we can foretell whence it may come.

"It may be that while we think we are masters of the situation we are merely pawns being moved about on the board of life by some superior power."


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