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The Mystery of Life1


DURING the last forty years the sciences of physics and chemistry have made tremendous strides. The physico-chemical world has been analysed into three components, electrons, protons, and the electro-magnetic field with its streams of radiant energy. Concurrently with these advances astronomy has progressed to an extent undreamed of forty years ago. Amidst the vast cosmos disclosed to the mind of man, our sun winds its modest way, an unimportant star, old in years and approaching death. Once upon, a time, so the astronomers tell us, its surface was rippled by the gravitational pull of a passing star, and the ripples becoming waves broke and splashed off. Some drops of this glowing spray, held by the sun's attraction in revolving orbits, cooled down and became the planets of our solar system. Our own planet, the earth, gradually acquired a solid crust. Then the water vapour in its atmosphere began to condense, and produced oceans, lakes, and rivers, as the temperature sank. It is probably at least a thousand million years since the earth acquired a solid crust of rock. During that period living beings, plants and animals, have appeared, and, as the story of the rocks tells us, have developed by degrees from small and lowly ancestors. The last product of this development is the mind of man. What a strange story! On the cool surface of this little planet, warmed by the rays of a declining star, stands the small company of life. One with the green meadows and the flowers, the birds, and the fishes, and the beasts, man with all his kith and kin counts for but an infinitesimal fraction of the surface of the earth, and yet it is the mind of man that has penetrated the cosmos and discovered the distant stars and nebulse. Truly we may say that life is the great mystery, and the study of life the greatest study of all. The understanding of the phenomena of life will surely be the crowning glory of science, towards which all our present chemical and physical knowledge forms but the preliminary steps.


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DONNAN, F. The Mystery of Life1. Nature 122, 512–514 (1928).

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