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Jeans, Sir James - The Mysterious Universe - Death as a function

Identifier

013990

Type of spiritual experience

Background

What Jeans is saying is that the process ‘death’ in radium atoms shares some characteristics with the process ‘death’ in a battalion of soldiers, in that the outcome in terms of the number killed tends to be the same over a given time span.  So there seems to be a mathematical rule built in to the process which governs the number killed, but does not select its victim from obvious factors.

Death is a function with rules.

If you also wish to see this in the context of genes, if you imagine for a moment that we have functions attached to genes, we have some genes that can be, in effect, the means of our death.  This death can be an individual death, or it may be far more wide spread – a form of mass extinction of those with the gene.

One of the commonest genes we have, for example, is for a protein called reverse transcriptas, which has no known beneficial function in human beings at all. The one thing it does do is make it possible for retroviruses, such as HIV, to slip unnoticed into the human system.  Quite a number of very unpleasant disorders – Haemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntingdon’s disease and cystic fibrosis can be caused by dysfunctional genes.  There are genes that appear to trigger certain diseases and there are genes that predispose us to disease and illness. 

Genes = function.

A description of the experience

Sir James Jeans – The Mysterious Universe

It is known that the atoms of radium and of other radio active substances, disintegrate into atoms of lead and helium with the mere passage of time, so that a mass of radium continually diminishes in amount, being replaced by lead and helium. 

The law which governs the rate of diminution is very remarkable. 

The amount of radium decreases in precisely the same way as a population would  if there were no births, and a uniform death rate which was the same for every individual, regardless of his age.  Or again, it decreases in the same way as the numbers of a battalion of soldiers who are exposed to absolutely random undirected fire.  In brief, old age appears to mean nothing to the individual radium atom; it does not die because it has lived its life, but rather because in some way fate knocks at the door.

To take a concrete example, suppose that our room contains 2,000 atoms of radium.  Science cannot say how many of these will survive after a year’s time, it can only tell us the relative odds in favour of the number being 2000, 1999, 1998 and so on.  Actually the most likely event is that the number will be 1999; the probabilities are in favour of one and only one of the 2000 atoms breaking up within the next year.

We do not know in what way this particular atom is selected out of the 2000.  We may at first feel tempted to conjecture it will be the atom that gets knocked about most or gets into the hottest places, or what not, in the coming year.  Yet this cannot be, for if blows or heat could disintegrate one atom, they could disintegrate the other 1999, and we should be able to expedite the disintegration of radium merely by compressing it or heating it up.  Every physicist believes this to be impossible; he rather believes that every year fate knocks at the door of one radium atom in every 2000, and compels it to break up; this is the hypothesis of spontaneous disintegration advanced by Rutherford and Soddy in 1908.

The source of the experience

Jeans, Sir James

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