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Life as it Could Be: A Conversation with Luis Campos

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Fourth Astrobiology Chair Luis Campos began his tenure at the Kluge Center on October 3. A historian of science, his most recent book is “Radium and the Secret of Life” (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He will spend his fellowship year at the Kluge Center studying the history of synthetic biology and its overlap with astrobiology – two fields that have gained momentum over the last decade and hold the potential to shed light on questions about the limits of life. He sat down with Kluge staff member Dan Turello to talk about his work.

Luis Campos Faculty Photo
Luis Campos, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology

Luis, how did you find your way to the history of science, and now, to astrobiology?

I never thought I would be a historian—but I always wanted to be an astronaut. Astronomy was a part of life from my earliest childhood. I remember being fascinated by a globe of the moon in the library of my elementary school and presenting on the Apollo XI in the third grade. I wrote letters to NASA as soon as I could write, and the four walls of my childhood bedroom were covered for years with posters they sent.

The power of inspiring teachers is remarkable too. I had some great biology teachers in high school, so when I arrived at college that seemed like a natural fit for me. But I was also interested in anthropology and the comparative study of religion—topics that just weren’t available to me before. I eventually found my intellectual home at the very intersection of science and culture, in the history of science. Although I graduated as a biology major, by the end of my four years I had somehow managed to take every one of my possible electives in the history or philosophy of science, studying everything from medieval manuscripts to feminist science studies. I also spent a summer as an intern in the News Department at Science Magazine, where I learned firsthand about science journalism. I learned how to study science as a scientist, as a humanist and as someone committed to public outreach all at the same time.

After college, I pursued an M.Phil. in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, where I discovered the history of heredity, and where I wrote my thesis on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the sociology of scientific knowledge. I was looking for ways to bring the best of humanistic analysis into dialogue with science, and by the time I returned stateside to embark on my doctorate I was ready to study the history of biology full time. My first research projects in graduate school were on the history of origins of life research, and that fascinating research brought me into the history of genetics and biological engineering, which remain my specialties today.

Who knows, somewhere out there may be a future Blumberg chair—an elementary school student already looking to the stars for inspiration.

Sometimes you can trace your professional interests all the way back to childhood, and that’s certainly the case for me in this position—it’s a childhood dream come true. It’s also why I made a special point of visiting the Young Readers Center during the Library’s Open House during my first month here, to admire their wonderfully done “Space Exploration Day” theme. Who knows, somewhere out there may be a future Blumberg chair—an elementary school student already looking to the stars for inspiration.

What is synthetic biology, and how does it relate to astrobiology?

Synthetic biology is a new attempt at biological engineering, at treating biology as a kind of technology. Rather than discovering how nature did something, synthetic biologists are more interested in what they can do with biology, either with the substrate nature has provided, or with new biological platforms that build on or modify it. I’ve been actively writing about the development of the field since their first conference in 2004, and I’ll be devoting much of this year to completing my book about the history of this field.

Synthetic biology is a new attempt at biological engineering, at treating biology as a kind of technology.

While synthetic biology unabashedly seeks to invent novel forms of life for human purposes and ends, astrobiology is interested in the possibility of discovering novel forms of life in the universe (or at least the conditions for the origin and evolution of life in the universe more generally). Astrobiologists want to “deparochialize” life and to think of it as a universal phenomenon, rather than as something that has only emerged once on Earth. Now, discovery and invention might seem like two poles of a classical distinction between science and engineering, but what I find compelling is that both synthetic biology and astrobiology are engaged with understanding the conceptual and practical limits of living systems—with what I call “life as it could be.”

What I as a historian find particularly fascinating is that these two fields actually share common roots in earlier decades: some of the same scientists promoting brave new futures for biology and biological engineering also seriously considered what life might look like elsewhere in the universe. For example, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hermann J. Muller was also an avid reader of science fiction, and he often wondered about life beyond the Earth. An important early mentor to the young Carl Sagan, Muller had often talked about the hereditary substance of the chromosomes as the “thread of destiny.” Sagan later picked up on this language. On the day after his son was born in 1959, Sagan wrote to Muller to say: “It feels strange adding our fiber to the red thread. I’ve never before had so strong a feeling of being a transitional creature, at some vague intermediary position between the primeval mud and the stars.” Even at the very beginnings of astrobiology, the worlds of the geneticist and the astrophysicist were never far apart. Exploring these connections is one of the things I am most interested in doing over the next year, as I dig into the 1,700 boxes of the Sagan papers here at the Library.

In your last book, “Radium and the Secret of Life,” you explore a time beginning at the turn of the last century when a newly-discovered element generated speculation far beyond the scientific realm. Why did radium create such a stir?

Radium, the new radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, was unlike anything the world had ever before seen. Only the most minute amounts of it were available, and it was incredibly costly, but the discovery that it generated tremendous amounts of energy from seemingly nothing at all challenged basic ideas of physics. What’s more, at the turn of the century, radium was popularly understood by many to be a marvelous, almost magical element that could do no wrong. There were visions of homes heated by radium furnaces, and radium-painted walls that would glow of their own accord—who needs electricity? Fabulous tales of radium’s future were foretold. The idea that the element with a half-life might itself be half-living also led many to hawk radium’s purportedly vitalizing properties: a so-called “radium craze” hit by 1904, with radium-spiked tonics, foodstuffs and cosmetics.

As I researched this history about the birth of living radium, I noticed how physics, biology and society all came to be intertwined with one another. Even as physicists began to appropriate terms from biology to characterize the new phenomena of radioactivity (fission, daughter elements, half-life), biologists began to use radium as a tool for biological experimentation. And that’s the story I explore in my book: how the lively metaphors surrounding radium in the physical and popular realms turned out to be immensely productive for biologists looking not only to design but even to interpret the results of their experiments into the origin of life, the nature of mutation and ultimately even the structure of the gene. Rather than seeing metaphor as merely descriptive, or as something that happens downstream after the science is done, I was able to uncover how metaphor is in fact generative, a constitutive part of scientific thought and practice. As much as evidence, metaphor is also at the heart of how science operates. And that means the relationship between science and society is even more interesting than we ever might have thought.

We often think of the sciences as distinct from the humanities. What does it mean for you to have a humanistic take on astrobiology?

It’s often tempting to think that the history of science should begin with the science, and that we should trace the implications for society from there. For many historians of science, however, it’s just as important to begin the other way around—to see how we can more deeply root the science in culture, as something that is done by people living in a particular time and place. Why do particular ways of framing questions emerge at the time that they do? What counts as a good argument, or good evidence, and when?

As I always tell my students, history is far more than names and dates, and society is far more than a place where scientific ideas go to have impact. It’s much more complicated and much more interesting than that. Science is one of the most powerful and fascinating cultural phenomena humans have yet devised, and we should study it with all the power and insight that the humanities can bring to bear. And a careful understanding of the many ways that science and society interrelate seems more important today than ever before.

Science is one of the most powerful and fascinating cultural phenomena humans have yet devised, and we should study it with all the power and insight that the humanities can bring to bear.

This makes me curious, what’s on your book shelf now?

I’m a voracious reader because I never know where my next footnote is going to come from. There was one day last month where I stopped and thought about what I had read that day, and it was the most remarkable smorgasbord: I had somehow managed to read works on astrophysics, microbiology, a scientific biography, visions of space in afrofuturist musical traditions, queer feminist science fiction of the sixties and Congressional testimony, all in one day. Bringing together such seemingly disparate threads into coherent narratives is what the humanities at their best can do in multiplying and enriching our understandings of the world.

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