The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

XXI
SZENT-GYÖRGYI AND THE HUXLEYS: SLIDING COILS

Our nature is movement. Absolute stillness is death. PASCAL.

FOR CENTURIES men had marveled at motion: the human's walk, the flight of the bird, the run of the animal, and the swift glide of the fish through the density of water; at its strength, the lifting power of an Atlas or the rush of a bull; at its speed, the blink of an eye or the sonic flutter of the hummingbird's wings; and at motion unseen but felt, the beat of the heart or the contraction of a hungry stomach.

All of it, the swift, the powerful, the voluntary, the involuntary, was effected through the muscles.

But how? This most persistent and inescapable of questions pressed hard in a world where a momentary failure of muscle --that of the heart--meant death. How could the muscles, small masses of a pinkish jelly, suddenly grow hard and move a thousand times their own weight and do it several hundred times a second? How could they keep life in motion?

The question carried to the basic principles of life. Clearly, it could not be fully answered without reaching down to the primary organization of living matter, to fundamental architecture and energy production. Until the 1950's there was no possibility of finding the answer by building up from that starting point of life, DNA, and its production and organization of the materials that constitute the muscles.

Few problems in the history of science were more difficult. It was remarkable, therefore, that the discovery of the principle of motion, of the action that enables living things to move and

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