This magnificent collection of essays by scientist and National Book Award-winning writer Lewis Thomas remains startlingly relevant for today’s world. Luminous, witty, and provocative, the essays address such topics as “The Attic of the Brain,” “Falsity and Failure,” “Altruism,” and the effects the federal government’s virtual abandonment of support for basic scientific research will have on medicine and science.
Profoundly and powerfully, Thomas questions the folly of nuclear weaponry, showing that the brainpower and money spent on this endeavor are needed much more urgently for the basic science we have abandoned—and that even medicine’s most advanced procedures would be useless or insufficient in the face of the smallest nuclear detonation. And in the title essay, he addresses himself with terrifying poignancy to the question of what it is like to be young in the nuclear age.
“If Wordsworth had gone to medical school, he might have produced something very like the essays of Lewis Thomas.”—TIME
“No one better exemplifies what modern medicine can be than Lewis Thomas.”—The New York Times Book Review
The essays that brought him renown were first written for The New England Journal of Medicine and later collected in best-selling books, including "The Lives of a Cell," for which he won a National Book Award in 1974, and "The Medusa and the Snail." He was called one of the best writers of short essays in English and "evolution's most accomplished prose stylist." It was said that he could write "as naturally as birds build a nest." Joyce Carol Oates used his essays as examples to teach her students how to structure their writing.
A lean, bespectacled, almost ascetic-looking man, his brown hair turned to gray in his later years, Dr. Thomas seemed to have a new idea a minute.
Even as he was dying, he turned his scrupulously observant mind to the subject of death in conversations in his Manhattan apartment with Roger Rosenblatt.
His thoughts were recounted by Mr. Rosenblatt in an article in The New York Times Magazine on Nov. 21. "There's really no such thing as the agony of dying," Dr. Thomas said in a high-pitched whisper that faded in and out. "I'm quite sure that pain is shut off at the moment of death. You see, something happens when the body knows it's about to go. Peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Endorphins. They attach themselves to the cells responsible for feeling pain."
His original scientific ideas spurred work in immunology; endotoxins, which are toxins produced by certain bacteria, and histocompatibility, which concerns immune reactions involved in transplants and other functions.
He was an optimist whose enthusiasm for nature and constant surprise at his discoveries suffused his writing. To him, science was high adventure. His vision of the world was one of symbiotic cooperation among the species. He believed that nature was essentially benign and that man was programmed for altruism and honesty.
"He had a sense of delight, a great generosity of spirit," said Dr. Lloyd J. Old, a colleague at Sloan-Kettering. "His great talent was to identify things of interest and enthuse others. He discovered the power of shared fascination. He was called a poet of science. He made science into a literature. He brought elegance, just plain class."
Dr. Saul J. Farber, chairman of the department of medicine, who succeeded Dr. Thomas as dean at N.Y.U., said: "He was a brilliant biologist. He contributed a great deal to the science of medicine. He stimulated many people to enter research, and a good number of them have achieved a great deal of success."
If there was any fault his colleagues found in him, it was that he never gave up his cigarettes. He urged his family and friends not to smoke, but he said it was all right after the age of 75, making himself the exception. A Fascination With Music
Dr. Thomas described the human race as being at a very early stage of development, yet having achieved much. "Any species capable of producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development . . . the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad," he wrote.
His fascination with the wonder of music was almost as great as his lifelong infatuation with science. In one essay in "The Lives of a Cell," he offered a proposal to facilitate interstellar communication: "I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later."
He was haunted in his later years by what he called "the risk of earthly incandescence." It was unlikely, he believed, that the world would be done in by natural forces. "If we are to be destroyed we will do it ourselves by warfare with thermonuclear weaponry," he wrote in his essay "Basic Science and the Pentagon." To him the military's term "unacceptable damage" was itself unacceptable, because, he wrote, it "carries the implication that there is an acceptable degree of damage from thermonuclear bombs."
"Damage," he wrote, was also the wrong term, and words like "disaster" and "catastrophe" were too frivolous for the events that would follow a nuclear war. "Individuals might survive, but 'survival' is the wrong word," he said.
"There exists no medical technology that can cope with the certain outcome of just one small, neat, so-called tactical bomb exploded over a battlefield," he wrote. "As for the problem raised by a single large bomb dropped on New York City or Moscow, with the dead and dying in the millions, what would medical technology be good for? As the saying goes, forget it. Think of something else. Get a computer running somewhere in a cave, to estimate the likely numbers of the lucky dead." 'Watch What We Can Do'
But, turning back to his customary optimism, he wrote, "Get us through the next few years, I say, just get us safely out of this century and into the next, and then watch what we can do."
Lewis Thomas was born in Flushing, Queens, on Nov. 25, 1913. His father, Joseph Simon Thomas, was a doctor; his mother, the former Grace Emma Peck, a nurse. From an early age, he accompanied his father on house calls. That experience gave Dr. Thomas an opportunity to observe the sea change in medicine over half a century, from the years when the family doctor could give comfort but little help, to the present day when near-miraculous cures are possible but doctors have grown increasingly remote from their patients. As an educator he sought some middle ground.
He grew up in Flushing where, he wrote, "all the children were juvenile delinquents" because they rang doorbells and scrawled on the sidewalks with colored chalk. He emerged from such criminal tendencies to graduate from Princeton University, where a biomedical laboratory was named for him in 1986, and Harvard Medical School. An internship at the Boston City Hospital followed in 1937. "It was, simply, the best of times," Dr. Thomas recalled. 'The Guiltiest of Wars'
He found equal delight in his years in the Navy during World War II when he conducted experiments in the Pacific for the medical service. "I had the guiltiest of wars, doing under orders one thing after another that I liked doing," he wrote.
By this time he had married Beryl Dawson. In time they had three daughters, Abigail Thomas and Judith Mira y Lopez of New York and Eliza Thomas of Randolph Center, Vt.; five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. They all survive him.
The family moved frequently as Dr. Thomas was lured from one medical faculty to the next. "We've never had to clean the books," he wrote. "The library has dusted itself every year or so."
Although he held many administrative positions, Dr. Thomas always kept a laboratory, conducted experiments and, as he put it, "kibitzed" with his students to spur them on. "Most of the time I've worked in labs if I didn't encounter something in a week entirely unexpected and surprising I'd consider it a lost week," he said. "Lots of that is due to mistakes and stupidity, but it could open a new line of inquiry. Something really good turns up once in a hundred times, but it makes the whole day worthwhile."
His list of scientific publications grew and during those same years he served as a consultant to the Federal Government and to the city. He was awarded more than 20 honorary degrees, for literature and music as well as for his scientific work.
Dr. Thomas started writing poems when he was an intern in Boston and sold pieces to The Atlantic Monthly to supplement his meager income. In addition to "The Lives of a Cell" (1974), which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into 11 languages, he also wrote "The Medusa and the Snail" (1979); "The Youngest Science" (1983); "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony" (1983); "Could I Ask You Something?" (1984), a book of poetry illustrated with original etchings by Alphonso Ossorio; "Et Cetera, Et Cetera" (1990), essays on language, and "The Fragile Species" (1992).
When he was in his mid-70's, Dr. Thomas had only a few regrets. "I wish I could play the piano," he said, "and I still wish I had been able to speak and comprehend impeccable French."
Dr. Thomas became convinced that there is a central mechanism that causes cancer and that it would be found before the end of the century. He also saw aging as a collection of separate ailments that thrive on a more vulnerable body that is naturally wearing out.
"Aging is a stage of life," he wrote, but it need not become the shambles of enfeeblement and infirmity it frequently becomes. Still, it was difficult to give up what he called the habit of living. "We cannot think of giving it up," he wrote, "even when living loses its zest -- even when we have lost the zest for zest."
As for himself, he wrote, "When I reach my time I may find myself still hanging around in some sort of midair, one of those small thoughts, drawn back into the memory of the earth: in that particular sense I will be alive." Sampler of the Writings of Thomas
We continue to share with our remotest ancestors the most tangled and evasive attitudes about death, despite the great distance we have come in understanding some of the profound aspects of biology. We have as much distaste for talking about personal death as for thinking about it; it is an indelicacy, like talking in mixed company about venereal disease or abortion in the old days. . . .
At the very center of the problem is the naked cold deadness of one's own self, the only reality in nature of which we can have absolute certainty, and it is unmentionable, unthinkable.
-- "The Lives of a Cell"
To face it squarely, I come from a line than can be traced straight back, with some accuracy, into a near infinity of years before my first humanoid ancestors turned up. I go back, and so do you, like it or not, to a single Ur-ancestor whose remains are on display in rocks dated approximately 3.7 thousand million years ago, born a billion or so years after the earth itself took shape and began cooling down. That first of the line, our n-granduncle, was unmistakably a bacterial cell. . . .
Never mind our embarrassed indignation when we were first told, last century, that we came from a family of apes and had chimps as near cousins. That was relatively easy to accommodate, having at least the distant look of a set of relatives. But this new connection, already fixed by recent science beyond any hope of disowning the parentage, is something else again. At first encounter, the news must come as a kind of humiliation. Humble origins, indeed.
-- "The Fragile Species"
The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
The individual parts played by other instrumentalists -- crickets or earthworms, for instance -- may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.
-- "The Lives of a Cell"Continue reading the main story