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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology…

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (original 1974; edition 1974)

by Lewis Thomas (Author)

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Title:The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
Authors:Lewis Thomas (Author)
Info:Viking Press (1974), Edition: 1st, 153 pages
Collections:Your library, special

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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas (1974)



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A collection of very short essays from the 1970s in which Lewis Thomas, a medical researcher, muses about various topics related to medicine, biology, and nature. He is particularly interested in mitochondria, social insects and the ways in which human society does or doesn't resemble theirs, and the importance of basic research in medical science.

This is regarded as a real classic of science writing, or at least of writing by a scientist, so it's a little surprising it took me this long to get to it. I must say that, when I first started it, I didn't exactly think it was living up to its reputation. The essays here are really tiny, more a series of individual thoughts than anything else. And Thomas not infrequently uses some technical terms without explaining them, which I didn't find too much of a problem, but which does make it feel less accessible than I was expecting. He also engages in a fair amount of speculation and the occasional flight of fancy that aren't at all scientific, which bugs me possibly more than it ought to.

But the more I read, the more I came to appreciate Thomas's writing. It's rather beautiful, always thoughtful and often thought-provoking, and laced with subtle wit. And although it is very much of its time, aside from a few now-humorous remarks about computers, it's actually aged quite well.

So. Do I still think Lewis Thomas is over-hyped, for lack of a better phrase? Well, yes, a bit. But he is still good. ( )
  bragan | Dec 11, 2018 |
Brief glimpses into the many facets of our biological cosmos. Combines wit, professional insight and a strong sense about the human condition.
  CenterPointMN | Jun 13, 2018 |
In 1974, Lewis Thomas wrote in 'The Lives of a Cell' that the function of humans is communication:

'We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind, so compulsively and with such speed that the brains of mankind often appear, functionally, to be undergoing fusion.'

Thirty-some years later, with the twittering Internet and its newsgroups, email, websites, and media, these words show real prescience.

'Or perhaps we are only at the beginning of learning to use the system, with almost all our evolution as a species still ahead of us. Maybe the thoughts we generate today and flick around from mind to mind...are the primitive precursors of more complicated, polymerized structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought.

The mechanism is there [n.b.: in the human brain], and there is no doubt that it is already capable of functioning...

We are simultaneously participants and bystanders, which is a puzzling role to play. As participants, we have no choice in the matter; this is what we do as a species.'
  keylawk | May 3, 2018 |
Several years ago an immunologist happened to tell me how much she admired The Lives of a Cell. Lucky for me, because now I’ve read it and there is much in it I hope not to forget.

Early in this charming collection of short essays, Lewis Thomas writes:
“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They do everything but watch television.”

Hmm . . . I gave up watching TV years ago so it appears the narrow ground differentiating me from an ant is now vanished. Well, I am lazier than an ant. I’ve never captured a slave, for example. Maybe that’s enough to claim I ain’t an ant! But probably I should just admit our kinship and go research which species it’d be best to enlist with.

After all, a large theme for Thomas is the sociability of organisms, their being together with their own kind, driven to finding relationships, congenial or not, with other kinds, forming dependencies capable of sustaining illusions of independence for the party that doesn’t understand the situation. It has about it something of the miraculous.

While reading The Lives of a Cell one becomes impressed by the scope of these relations, by the rarity of “separateness,” by little-known continua in life. This last idea is dramatically illustrated in the process of dying. Thomas shares in his essay “The Long Habit” the following remarkable intelligence:
“Judging from what has been found out thus far, from the first generation of people resuscitated from cardiac standstill…Those who remember parts or all of their episodes do not recall any fear, or anguish. Several people who remained conscious throughout, while appearing to have been quite dead, could only describe a remarkable sensation of detachment . . .
“In a recent study of the reaction of patients to dying of obstructive disease of the lungs, it was concluded that the process was considerably more shattering for the professional observers than the observed. Most of the patients appeared to be preparing themselves with equanimity for death, as though intuitively familiar with the business. One elderly woman reported that the only painful and distressing part of the process was in being interrupted; on several occasions she was provided with conventional therapeutic measures…and each time she found the experience of coming back harrowing; she deeply resented the interference with her dying.”

What could speak more of the completeness of life’s preparations for the living individual in all its natural events?

In what Lewis Thomas tells us, in The Lives of a Cell, the reader enjoys more than mere acquaintance with interesting information. The book quietly extends our perceptions and alters our perspectives. ( )
  dypaloh | Apr 14, 2018 |
The author invited my wife, the artist Susan Mohl Powers (google her on wikipedia), to exhibit at Sloan Kettering after she did at Squibb International Headquarters in Princeton (and was reviewed in the NYT), but somehow in the early 80's she was developing other forums. I "taught" some of these essays, too good for a medical journal (they were often published in newspapers, too, as I recall) and found the prose as good as any contemporary non-fiction I had read,"the high probability that we derived, originally, from a single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled...we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance"(5). On mitochondria, he notes, "in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be little separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes...Mitochondria are stable and responsible lodgers..."
Since I was a pre-med student at an excellent college, I follow this pretty well, but I believe only my nursing students really liked it at the community college when I taught chapters like "Death in the Open," and "The music of This Sphere." ( )
  AlanWPowers | Mar 11, 2017 |
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The book explores the world around us and examines the complex interdependence of all things.

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