What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times:

Carl Zimmer’s book begins with a bang. Not a Big Bang, but a small one. In the fall of 1904, a 31-year-old physicist, John Butler Burke, working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University, made a “bouillon” of chunks of boiled beef in water. To this mix, he added a dab of radium, the newly discovered element glowing with radioactive energy, and waited overnight. The next morning, he skimmed the radioactive soup, smeared a layer on a glass slide and placed it under a microscope. He saw spicules of coalesced matter — “radiobes,” as he called them — that resembled, to his eyes, the most primeval forms of life.

He was convinced that he had made a major discovery. “They are entitled to be classed among living things,” he would later write. It was heralded as a monumental advance — noted in newspapers and scientific journals. That December, black-tied physicists from the Cavendish gathered to celebrate Burke’s astonishing achievement. They sang:

Through me they say life was created
And animals formed out of clay,
With bouillon I’m told I was mated
And started the life of today.

Burke’s fall from fame, unfortunately, would be as precipitous as his rise. His “radiobes” would later turn out to have little to do with living chemicals, or life. But Burke, convinced that he had discovered “artificial life” and potentially shed light on life’s origins (make soup, throw in radioactivity, then just add water), turned into a ridiculous crank. Brushed off by the scientific community, this fleeting star of biology would die, impoverished and ranting about how his “radiobes” held the clue to life. He would eventually become the butt of scientific jokes — the modern version of the medieval alchemist who was once convinced that a mixture of semen and rotting meat, incubated in a warm hole, could spontaneously form a homunculus, a miniature human.

More here.