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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (Notes of a Biology Watcher #1)

4.15  ·  Rating Details  ·  5,687 Ratings  ·  197 Reviews
Anticipates the kind of writing that will appear more frequently as scientists take on poetic language in order to communicate human truths too mysterious for old-fashioned commonsense. Elegant, suggestive & clarifying, Thomas' humane vision explores the world & examines the complex interdependence of all things. Extending beyond the usual limitations of biological ...more
Paperback, 180 pages
Published January 1st 1974 by Bantam Books
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Jul 01, 2015 Lotz rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: nobody
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite a while—partially because it has gotten such good reviews online, and partially because I like reading essays on biology. But now, after finishing it, I am both confused and disappointed.

With most books, even if I don’t like them, I can still understand and appreciate what the author was trying to achieve. Not with this. The only thing I can think of that could have motivated Lewis Thomas to write this book is sheer egoism. He’s the kind
Apr 27, 2015 Poiema rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I came across a truly lyrical biology book, a series of essays by Lewis Thomas entitled The Lives of a Cell. Now this is a man who can write about biology in a way that delights. For example, this paragraph on pheromones:

" 'At home, 4 p.m. today', says the female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will tremble the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor. But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught
Kee the Ekairidium
This was an extraordinary find while I was sifting randomly through the dusty boxes of a booksale outlet store. The price tag was shocking as well; it only cost 10 pesos. I enjoy reading anthologies, whether they're short stories in fiction or non-fiction essays. Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell falls in the latter category.

The book is composed of 29 of the most succinct but unforgettable essays on subjects not just narrowed down to scientific fields but also about their ongoing connection to
Apr 04, 2008 Michelle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
A non-fiction book about biology that reads more like fiction. It offers a wonderful, almost poetic scientific perspective on mankind, other species and the Earth as a whole. Although I had to keep a dictionary of scientific terms handy as I read, it was an otherwise very enjoyable read.
A quote from the book:
"I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible conne
May 06, 2014 Max rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A wonderful book, packed with fascinating insights. Lewis is prescient. Most of his ideas feel timelier than when the book was written. Using cell biology as a springboard (fortunately not in too much detail) for his philosophy, Lewis explores what it means to be human and the functioning of society. A central theme is human society as a living cell with its many interdependent structures and functions. Key to this theme is the idea that the nuclei, mitochondria, organelles and other structures ...more
Alexander Murphy
The lives of a cell is an amazing book, which i believe most people should read, if they can handle it. The reason i say this is because it explores the human vision of the world around us, and the life forms and beings that pass us by in a matter of a lifetime. Thomas explains in a very scientific, and biological style of writing how the world has a major sense of interdependence. It reveals the human nature in all of us, and how we are indeed a social species. However, this book does not focus ...more
Nov 25, 2008 Dale rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This is an odd little book, very slim and breezy to read, even though it drops some serious seven-syllable science words without so much as a nod towards defining them or even contextualizing them. Like The Flight of the Iguana, it's really a collection of essays rather than a single narrative or thematic work, but that aspect is much more obvious in this book. Apparently the book either collects essays from disparate sources, or their original single source didn't care if Thomas frequently recy ...more
Nov 05, 2010 Scott rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Every human
Shelves: finished-2010
This book, simply, is amazing and wonderful and makes you feel happy, as well as stunned, to be alive. In this collection of essays Lewis Thomas tackles a variety of subjects relating to biology, chemistry, linguistics (as a parallel to biology) and much more. The reader finds out so much about the human body that is not only startling but is basically an existential nightmare. Instead of being a single form we are in fact made up of millions or billions of cells that share no DNA with us and ar ...more
Jun 04, 2007 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essay
This is a collection of essays (I think all of Lewis Thomas' books are) that were published in science and medical journals prior to being collected in book format.

The essays are each so well written, beautifully phrased and accessible. Each begins by looking at life at the tiny cellular level but reaches beyond the cellular level to encompass life at the fullest level.

For his ability to write about science and nature in a intellecutal yet humble and humorous manner appeals immediately. He essa
Jan 08, 2016 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction-read
In the spring of 1991, my wife of 21 years died of cancer, leaving me with the gift of two wonderful children, aged 5 and 7. She was my high school sweetheart and the best friend I had ever had. I was devastated and lost, and at the same time responsible for two precious lives. I slept little and in the early morning hours I found Lewis Thomas. His wonderful essays put my life in perspective and helped me to cope with what I perceived as an irreparable loss. I am forever indebted to this wonderf ...more
Jul 28, 2010 Nancy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It is with a heavy heart that I report what a drag it was to read this book. I love science, I love essays, I love philosophical wanderings linking the various arts and sciences together in a creative web of understanding. But apparently I do not enjoy Lewis Thomas' version of any of those things.

Firstly, the science in the book is terribly dated. Not his fault, but worth mentioning. Secondly, Thomas' tendency to assume opinions as a basis for truth, and begin his extrapolations from that point,
Mar 24, 2012 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book as part of Family Book Club, which I instituted with Christmas gifts last year. If I'm going to expect my family to read a gift-book, I should read it too, went the thought.

The selfish part of this is that I may have given them books I wanted to read anyway (three of them are on a recent Time Magazine list of essential nonfiction, but I like to think I tailored the list to their interests--how my dad relates to Zen and motorcyles, I'm not sure, but it is about fathers and sons,
Jan 12, 2011 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The good: Lewis Thomas weds his knowledge of biology and medicine with an enjoyable prose style to describe the physical world as a wondrous place worth knowing more about. I feel science writing has a way of sometimes reducing things to formula, when it really should open us up to the idea of re-imagining how we perceive who we are and how the world works. This is a skill that Thomas seems particularly adept at, and one I wish that was more common.

The bad: As many of these essays were published
Erik Graff
May 20, 2015 Erik Graff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: sciences
Author Thomas is, among other things, a medical doctor and these essays are excerpted from issues of the The New England Journal of Medicine published in 1971, '72 and '73. Although dated, scientifically speaking, their multiperspectival theme of the interconnectedness of living things at all levels is still philosophically relevant. Besides, his writing is beautiful.

An anthology of short, philosophical meditations on the biology and ecology of life, pondering such varied topics as; Can we learn from ant colonies? How would an alien species view us? What exactly is the health industry? Are there parallels to be drawn between what science observes and our socio-political life? An emotional response to road kill and the odd venture in the direction of 'the Gaia Hypothesis' en route.
I found it a little dry in places but the entries regarding linguistics and gen
John Clark
Jan 07, 2010 John Clark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In "The Lives of a Cell", Lewis Thomas dances around the question of what life is, and what it means to be alive. This book is a collection of essays that discuss biology, language, society, and other issues of naturalism and scientific observation that weave together into a rather unique way of looking at the lives of individuals with respect to the others. When I had finished this book, I was very excited by the new way I looked at the world around me, and eagerly discussed many of its concept ...more
Mar 03, 2009 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ever have a book give you a deeper appreciation for life by revealing your ignorance? And this type of revealing ignorance doesn't make you feel bad or inadequate. You just kinda feel the need to keep reading and learn more. It makes you never want to be ignorant again. Well, in my case it did.

Discusses the concept of the earth as a larger version of a cell. Down to the structures, to our interactions. So the "lives of the cell" are the occurrences of our everyday life. Visible and "invisible".

Marwa Assem Salama
I never considered myself qualified enough to talk or summarize any scientific book, let alone evaluate it. Especially, if that book has won two national awards like the case here. But lately, I suffered from symptoms of emotional writing overdose; provoked useless memories and lost enthusiasm towards many activities, to the extent that I busted myself envious of a bunch of bastards who were cursing each other on Facebook’s comments section. Somehow I found it a good sign that they still have a ...more
Really interesting to reread these essays after about 30 years. Some remain truly timeless, while others have a quaintness about them that is interesting for capturing the period when written. All are worth reading in any case.
Feb 26, 2015 Tomislav rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I enjoyed reading these short essays; Lewis Thomas makes some insightful observations about human society, medicine, language, and the conduct of science, among other things. Because I found it difficult to read more than a small handful per day, I spread it out over a month, dipping in between other books. If there is any primary concept in his thinking, it would be the view of human society and natural biosystems as superorganisms - just as cells are individual organisms cooperating within our ...more
Oct 04, 2015 J.T. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, science
I enjoyed reading these short essays. Thomas has an endearing way of presenting little known facts and sharing unusual analogies that bring unusual insight into the behavior and society of humans and their diseases. This is no hum-drum collection of nearly identical articles, but a widely varied set of essays that incorporates good humor and generous praise of the wonderful world in which we live.
Aug 14, 2012 Debra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Remarkable book, not too deep for the layperson. Some words did go over my head, but I understood the gist of most everything the author was trying to say. Interesting look at biology, insects, man, and earth. Definitely worth the read and requires little effort. Go for it!
May 02, 2014 Calico rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I plucked this book from the one dollar bin at Borders; yet Nora Roberts goes for seven at every grocery store. This says a lot about the market for existential holism.

Book good. Me read.
Oct 01, 2010 Ross rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It has been a long time since I read this book. Perhaps I would enjoy it more now. I will put it down on the list to read again soon. His writing is rather like that of Stephen Jay Gould.
Brian Hoffstein
If you find cells to be utterly fascinating, beautiful, and complex then you will enjoy this book. If you are a curious to find out why cells are these things, then you might consider reading "The Lives of a Cell" as well. More like a sequence of essays with a general theme and flow, Lewis Thomas unleashes his deep, eclectic intellect into his writing, with topics ranging from artificial intelligence to the healthcare system and beyond. Thomas has an academic pedigree, but writes like a poetic e ...more
Apr 16, 2014 Elizabeth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, biology
Every now and then, a book I'm reading refers to this book or quotes from it, so I was happy to have a chance to finally read it directly. It's a collection of short essays, each about 7 pages long, on a variety of topics: language, medicine, germs, the Marine Biological Laboratory, how humans do and do not behave like social insects, etc. Thomas was a physician and he freely threw words like "prokaryotic," "eukaryotic," and "ribosomes" into his writing. But you don't need to have majored in bio ...more
Gregg Wright
It's fairly rare for scientists to write books on their craft that hold up simply as good prose, but Lewis Thomas is such a person. Some of the science may be a little outdated, and sometimes Thomas can be a little too self-indulgent and pretentious, but there's a poetry in the way he relates his thoughts and in some areas he's surprisingly prophetic. There may be better and more current books for educating one's self on biology, but I could see Thomas succeeding at getting people interested in ...more
Feb 21, 2016 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, it turns out The Lives of a Cell has little to do with cells. I checked it out figuring to learn something about how cells work, since I'm a ways removed from fifth-grade life science, or even freshman bio. I wasn't just judging the book by its cover -- when I peeked in, there was a paragraph about mitochondria! As it turns out, though, Lives is a collection of essays sharing the theme of sociobiology. As our cells are a collection of organisms working together for mutual benefit, and our ce ...more
The most salient quality of these essays is their ability to confront us with new realms of microbiological phenomena. Their more interesting facets, however, are Lewis' several philosophical preoccupations. He loves viewing humanity through the lens of sociobiology. He believes language is our grand social project, as nests are to social insects. Looking at humanity and the progressive accumulation of knowledge and culture this way was a bit of a revelation. He imagines the network of humanity, ...more
Olive Francis
Apr 05, 2011 Olive Francis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thomas seems to be intrigued by the fact that humans are social creatures. All the aspects of what defines a social creature- communication, language, community, work- intrigues him. He often goes on tangents explaining the intricate innards of a cell. Pieces like ribosomes and mitochondria inside a cell work together and formulate tissue, which makes organs, which turn into organ systems, and so on until a body and mind is formed. Of the parts of a cell, Thomas finds the mitochondria to be the ...more
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Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) was a physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher.

Thomas was born in Flushing, New York and attended Princeton University and Harvard Medical School. He became Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. His formative
More about Lewis Thomas...

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Notes of a Biology Watcher (2 books)
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“The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” 39 likes
“If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani 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.” 6 likes
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