Monday, November 25, 2013

lives of a cell

Lewis Thomas

In 1974, Viking Press collected twenty-nine of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell. This gave readers the opportunity to see the development of his essay style and voice. The first and title essay in the book, often reprinted in prose anthologies as a model of literary prose, sets the tone and recurring themes of the essays. Here he builds on the analogy between the workings of the cell and the workings of the earth and its lives, including man's. He finds the earth "the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death" and man as '"the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia," "embedded in nature" and not the master of it that he pictures himself to be. We are not separate entities so much as interdependent, sharing our very cells with separate creatures such the mitochondria. He concludes that the earth is cannot be called an organism because of its invisible complexities, yet it can be compared to a single cell

Many of his essays, in this book and others, elaborate this idea of interconnectedness, based on his clear explanations of scientific and medical insights. He teaches readers not only about microbiology but how these scientific discoveries can illumine their understanding of an earth in which all beings work collaboratively and interdependently toward what he hopes will be a better world in all senses. Thus the idea of the essential unity of living things, so often sentimentalized into banality, becomes compelling, based not on generalities but on his intimate understanding of how details of cellular biology and immunology can metaphorically reflect human and cosmic realities, both physical and social.

The book includes a great variety of topics. He contemplates the possibilities of extraterrestrial life as he thinks about space exploration. The activity of termite nests is compared to medical conventions, which are much less efficient and collaborative. He considers how we might communicate with our pheromones. Music, one of Thomas's great interests which reappears often in later essays, is the basis for an essay on sounds in nature and a quantitative model of thermodynamic theory.

Another favorite subject is the value of admitting to ignorance before acting precipitously. He proposes that before we start doing anything drastic to alter the environment, such as nuclear warfare, that we determine to understand fully the workings of a single form of life. In "An Ernest Proposal," his candidate for this study, which would take at least ten years, is a protozoan in the digestive tract of Australian termites, a model of collaboration we humans need to learn from.

This book also shows the broad range of Thomas's interests and knowledge. He frequently turns to classical music and language, especially the etymology of key words, to find analogies for order and evolution of ideas. He believes that "rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else--an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate random matter in chaos into the improbably ordered dance of living forms." ("The Music of This Sphere") Likewise, words, like "stigmergy," fascinate him because of their "deeply seated, immutable meaning, often hidden, which is the genotype." ("Living Language")

Combining the microscopic and the human is typical of his essays. He is fascinated with technological developments in medicine, but worries in several essays that basic research may consequently be getting too little attention. Other subjects which reappear in later essays include meditations on aging and dying and human paranoia about germs

The final essay, "The World's Biggest Membrane," returns to the premises of the first essay, as he contemplates photographs of the earth from space: "Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos." He goes beyond the famous photographs by comparing the atmosphere to the cell membrane: "To stay alive, you have to be able to hold out against equilibrium, maintain imbalance, bank against entropy, and you can only transact this business with membranes in our kind of world." .He develops this analogy as he describes the evolution of the sky, as "far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature." As in most of his essays, such generalities come to life because he can present so clearly the scientific understandings which underlie them.

~ Ann Woodlief

Lewis Thomas said: "The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning."