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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

(Notes of a Biology Watcher #1)

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  9,630 ratings  ·  294 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 science ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published February 23rd 1978 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1974)
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Average rating 4.15  · 
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Roy Lotz
Mar 10, 2013 rated it did not like it
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 kin
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lewis Thomas is a warm and engagingly human writer on science.

With wit, knowledge and scientific acumen he engages us in a holistic and ecologically responsible view of nature.

His style is always so elegantly simple that even those of us who flunked senior year biology can look back, shake our heads, and wonder that we hyped-up teens ever viewed Science as hopelessly square.

It’s not, you know.

Because we ourselves are an extremely tiny part of a vast, breathing integrated whole which it is our
Oct 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Frank Eldritch
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
Mar 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 der ...more
May 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology
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
May 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 21, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Neil R. Coulter
Mar 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I picked up a copy of The Lives of a Cell from a giveaway shelf just a little before encountering Lewis Thomas in William Zinsser's book Writing to Learn. Reading Thomas is a lot of fun. He employs a relaxed, humorous, slightly ironic tone that makes his perspective on life distinctive. I haven't read another book quite like The Lives of a Cell. Though I can see how it led to the genre of "scientists writing for a popular audience," it remains its own kind of book.

Both the humor and a general th
Micah Kramer
Mar 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a collection of essays by the author. I found this book to be a light read and a lot of fun. The author was full of energy and excitement. Over all I found the book to be a challenge to wonder instead of accept and memorize boring "facts". It was a refreshing change from my years studying physics where each professor in their turn just told you a bunch of things that "just are the way it is" (even when those things were at best theoretical and at worst a philosophical hypothesis), a ...more
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a fabulous gem of a book. This is the sort of professor I loved best, and the sort of writer I love. Here is someone who not only knows their own field, but it happy to see the connections and marvels of other fields. This is someone who lives and breathes the ideas of systems theory without actually articulating those words. The joy and marvel of life and the universe come through with an openness to appreciating it and no need to own or control or dominate, but also no naivety on how huma ...more
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My father-in-law just turned me on to Lewis Thomas. The title of this book sounds familiar, as does the author's name, but apparently it was not because I'd read his work before. Happily, he has all of Thomas's books, so I expect that I will end up reading them all. He tells me that Thomas had a column in a medical journal called "Notes of a Biology Watcher," and this book is a collection of some of those columns.

Wonderful writing, fascinating and charming. However, this was the seventies, so yo
Sep 29, 2009 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 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 16, 2013 rated it really liked it

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
Jan 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Erik Graff
May 20, 2015 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. ...more
Jan 24, 2021 rated it it was ok
“I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go.... it is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections... if not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like?... it is most like a single cell.”

I’ve been excited to pick this little book up because it has been hailed many times as an iconic & important science book on the list with “Silent Spring” & “On the Origin of Species”.

I have to say I disagree. I think this little
Karen GoatKeeper
Jan 05, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, read2021
As is true of most books of essays, some left me lost, some were interesting, some were great.
Each of the essays was a newspaper column so they are short. The subject matter varies. These were written in the 1970s and reflect the optimism, the naivety, the state of knowledge of that time.
The author was a doctor and his essays on death and dying are really good. Evidently he was interested in ants as he writes about them and how human society mimics ant society in some ways. Others are on languag
some really interesting thoughts about insects, language, society
Alok Sharma
Dec 10, 2020 rated it liked it
Factual and abstract at the same time.
Jan 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
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,
John Clark
Jan 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 19, 2012 rated it liked it
The writing was brilliant in many of these essays, but I simply cannot endorse the theory of evolution as truth and law. I understand it's principals and why it makes sense. I don't dispute it's a good idea and theory, but it's still just that. It's mystifying to me that scientists describe the beginning of time as if they were there, as if they have libraries filled with annals of encyclopedic data. The fact is, they weren't there, and the so-called data we do have is speculative at best. I'm j ...more
Mar 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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".

Nov 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This book changed the way I looked at science. Lewis is full of a sense of wonder about science that beats back the reductionist labtrash and prepares the mind for seeing the creativity, danger and absurdity of the biologic world. I've bought at least five copies of this book over the years and given them away. ...more
Feb 16, 2011 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!
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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

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