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Al Schalow column: Locks and keys
The Search for Meaning

Al Schalow column: Locks and keys

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At the age of 10, I received a five-year diary as a gift. It had a simulated red leather cover with a strap closure and a small key to lock it. I marveled at the intricacy of the lock and key, wondered why they were needed, and began a lifetime of being fascinated with locks and keys in a larger sense.

From early on, children are used to seeing locks and keys in various forms. Parents lock doors and cabinets as safety measures. Medicines, tools and other things of danger to children are kept under lock and key. As they grow older, and more responsible, kids learn that spare keys are hidden under doormats or flower pots for emergency house entry. And most homes have a key rack to store car keys, and other keys for equipment, storage and home.

So far then, we can deduce that keys and locks generally serve the purpose of keeping things/people in, or keeping them out. That observation can explain their use for privacy, as in keeping diaries, or safety measures for lives and property. If, however, we expand the concept of locks and keys to include arts, sciences and discovery, we can envision many things as locks or keys.

I entertained such thoughts as my collection of locks and keys grew larger through the years. I began to notice how often people use those words as similes or metaphors: “Study is the key to success;” “Lock down a financial deal.” The sheer quantity of such expressions led me to believe practically everything we touch, feel, smell, taste, see — or even dream about — can serve either as a lock or a key.

In pharmaceutical research, scientists look for chemical entities that can attach to or block actions at “receptor sites.” In effect, these interactions are locks and keys that work to prevent or ameliorate disease. Conversely, disease or poisonous substances can find such sites to cause bodily harm or death. The current coronavirus vaccine is an example of scientific success finding key components of the deadly virus, and creating a key to lock out and destroy its deadly capabilities. Receptor sites also are involved in pain and pleasure. Our bodies internally have produced endorphins, adrenalin and other chemicals that unlock our “fight-or-flight” decisions, feelings of well-being and other emotions. One or more of such chemicals, perhaps, is the key that unlocks the emotion of human love.

In the same vein, humankind long has realized that proper nutrition is an important key to maintaining good health for people and animals. The discovery of vitamins, minerals, food pyramids, daily nutritional values and counting calories has unlocked avenues to longer lifespans. Plant and animal genome technology have contributed to a healthier population on our planet. It is astounding that most of the keys to unlocking human health and nutrition secrets have been found in the last few centuries of human existence.

By this time, I might — or might not — have convinced you that practically everything either is a lock or a key. I offer, then, the periodic table of the elements as further proof of my hypothesis. These unique elements and their combinations fit as keys to unlock simple and complex chemicals, metals and biologicals that can freeze, melt, explode, undergo fission and fusion — and create life. Instruments invented by man utilized such materials to achieve long-distance communications. Early telegraphed messages began with keyed alphabet signals at the point of origin, and allowed “unlocking” the message at the destination by transmission through copper telegraph wires. Today’s modern key and lock communications involve atmospheric band transmission of signals still keyed at origin and unlocked at destination. Think of the on/off switches and buttons on modern electronic devices as — you guessed it — locks and keys.

My final supposition involves a quantum leap question. Which came first: the lock or the key? What if scientific and biblical accounts of creation of the universe symbiotically are responsible for our universe and existence. A few years ago, I read a scientist’s theory that the universe was a giant computer. He explained the universe life cycle as being a “recursive algorithm.” I imagined his black holes, critical nuclear mass, big bang and speculation pieces of the puzzle as locks and keys: alpha and omega.

This brings us back full circle, like the recursive algorithm, to the lock and key on the initially mentioned diary. Daily, when unlocked, we write down our most important experiences, wonderings, discoveries and relationships. Each following day the key allows us to unlock all we have recorded in the past and add further observations. The universal human search for explanation of why we exist in a yet-to-be-explained universe continues with our fascination for and employment of locks and keys. They are all around us.

Al Schalow is a retired pharmacist. He performs The Medicine Wagon Show for incoming VCU School of Pharmacy students each year. Contact him at:

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