Thomas: The Lives of a Cell

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Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell : Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York : Penguin Books, 1978. 153 pages, with "reference notes" (no index).

This volume is a collection of essays that Thomas wrote between 1971 and 1973 for the New England Journal of Medicine. These are not specialist or technical essays, but they are written for sophisticated readers with a sophisticated vocabulary and some familiarity with scientific concepts. Their tone seemed to me to be that of one scientist talking with another about subjects that are not a particular specialty of either.

This is a famous collection even after 30 years in print, but I'm not quite sure why. I've heard the book touted as though it's a classic of science popularization, but it's not—these essays are not primarily didactic.In fact, I think the subtitle, "Notes of a Biology Watcher", is surprisingly accurate: they seem to be ruminations on topics of the day as they caught Thomas' interest. They do, nevertheless, provide insights into the inner workings of science, largely because they are writings about science by an unusually eloquent scientist.

Regardless of my equivocations they certainly made for compelling reading. I read them in small doses, two or three an evening, and I found myself looking forward to finding out what came next. I think it was less the topics and more Thomas' writing that stoked my anticipation. They were always a pleasant way to spend ten or fifteen minutes in a quiet place.

Some themes seemed to be on Thomas' mind most of the time: cells, ant colonies, and symbiosis. I found myself wondering whether my impression was correct that either the cell or the anthill was mentioned in each essay, such was the importance they had for Thomas as handy, multi-purpose metaphors.

This excerpt is from the beginning of an essay titled "Natural Science", more or less about how science happens.

The essential wildness of science as a manifestation of human behavior is not generally perceived. As we extract new things of value from it, we also keep discovering parts of the activity that seem in need of better control, more efficiency, less unpredictability. We'd like to pay less for it and get our money's worth on some more orderly, businesslike schedule. The Washington planners are trying to be helpful in this, and there are new programs for the centralized organization of science all over the place, especially in the biomedical field.

It needs thinking about. There is an almost ungovernable, biologic mechanism at work in scientific behavior at its best, and this should not be overlooked.

The difficulties are more conspicuous when the problems are very hard and complicated and the facts not yet in. Solutions cannot be arrived at for problems of this sort until the science has been lifted through a preliminary, turbulent zone of outright astonishment. Therefore, what must be planned for, in the laboratories engaged in the work, is the totally unforeseeable. If it is centrally organized, the system must be designed primarily for the elicitation of disbelief and the celebration of surprise. [p. 100]

The anthill, by the way, is the metaphor of choice that made its appearance in this essay.

As with any collection of essays, especially those written regularly for a periodical publication, some will seem better than others and a few might not seem to have been such a good idea. However, I enjoyed reading the entire collection.

Some will find the words difficult, some will find the concepts unfamiliar, and yet I suspect most readers will respond positively to the honest, gentle, appreciative tone of Thomas' writing.

-- Notes by JNS

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