August 20th, 2009

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of A Biology Watcher

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The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas does not contain of the exclusive scientific vocabulary one might expect from a Doctor of Medicine who was professor, chairman, and dean at some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical universities in the United States. Thomas writes not as a scientist but as a scientifically-minded poet.  The book is a slim volume which covers a great deal of territory: each of the ten chapters takes a different perspective on issues relating to micro-biology, human evolution, the natural world, the pursuit of science.  The consistent humor and delicacy with which Thomas delves into difficult issues is a primary connection between the essays’ diverse topics.

Before properly beginning the book properly I turned to a random page and read:

Watching television, you’d think we lived at bay, in total jeopardy, surrounded on all sides by human-seeking germs, shielded against infection and death only by a chemical technology that enables us to keep killing them off.

These descriptions of our fearful actions continue for a lengthy paragraph and it is only at the end of the page that Thomas begins an outright discussion of the chapter’s topics of disease and the micro-organisms held responsible.  He sheds light on human behavior as relates to germs, behavior based not on knowledge of the cells themselves but rather on our own immune responses.  Thomas elaborates on several cases in which changing our approach could achieve more productive outcomes.

Lives of a Cell covers much more than just a discussion of micro-biology, even as relates to human behavior.  In “Some Biomythology” Thomas seriously discusses mythical beasts from a diversity of cultures and casually compares what these have to teach us about the animal kingdom with what recently-discovered micro-organisms can reveal of biology to the public.

In “Ceti” Thomas discusses Tau Ceti – a nearby start which resembles our sun, the CETI (Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the logistics of communicating with intelligent life beyond our solar system.  He revels in the potential miscommunication. What of ourselves would we choose to share with newly-found intelligent life if the beginning of our conversation spanned hundreds of years?  Our recent discoveries in science would be an embarrassment 300 years later.  He draws the reader into the realization of how quickly human society is changing, and proposes that perhaps music – Thomas favors Bach, specifically – could be our greatest ally.

Lewis Thomas’ prose are not what one might expect from the highest echelons of academia.  He is far too human and humble in his stringing together of abstract ideas; too good at reaching a broad audience.  I cannot wait to get my hands on his earlier book The Medusa and the Snail, on his many published articles, maybe even articles published by his colleagues, to discover whether the beauty of his thoughts and writing extend beyond these pages.  I hope they do.


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