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Notes of a Biology Watcher #1

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

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Elegant, suggestive, and clarifying, Lewis Thomas's profoundly humane vision explores the world around us and examines the complex interdependence of all things. Extending beyond the usual limitations of biological science and into a vast and wondrous world of hidden relationships, this provocative book explores in personal, poetic essays to topics such as computers, germs, language, music, death, insects, and medicine. Lewis Thomas writes, "Once you have become permanently startled, as I am, by the realization that we are a social species, you tend to keep an eye out for the pieces of evidence that this is, by and large, good for us."

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1974

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About the author

Lewis Thomas

49 books185 followers
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 years as an independent medical researcher were at Tulane University School of Medicine.

He was invited to write regular essays in the New England Journal of Medicine, and won a National Book Award for the 1974 collection of those essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. He also won a Christopher Award for this book. Two other collections of essays (from NEJM and other sources) are The Medusa and the Snail and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. His autobiography, The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher is a record of a century of medicine and the changes which occurred in it. He also published a book on etymology entitled Et Cetera, Et Cetera, poems, and numerous scientific papers.

Many of his essays discuss relationships among ideas or concepts using etymology as a starting point. Others concern the cultural implications of scientific discoveries and the growing awareness of ecology. In his essay on Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Thomas addresses the anxieties produced by the development of nuclear weapons.[1] Thomas is often quoted, given his notably eclectic interests and superlative prose style.

The Lewis Thomas Prize is awarded annually by The Rockefeller University to a scientist for artistic achievement.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 343 reviews
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
947 reviews17.6k followers
February 17, 2023
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 DUTY to cherish and protect!

Did I ever tell you my parents were dead set on my becoming a doctor - with such scientific training as Lewis Thomas had?

It’s true!

Imagine me, who daily gorged on fictional literary hot cakes for breakfast and longed to discover the recipe ingredients of those classics with my professors...

Sweating mini bricks over my first year calculus course... me, who could never even master ALGEBRA?

I kid you not.

Well, suffice it to say that after the Christmas break, my head splitting, I was forced with my midterm results to hastily abandon the scientific ship - if I had half a snowball’s chance in Hades left of surviving Freshman Year.

My parents were bitterly disappointed.

I trudged ahead quietly.

And then, that summer of 1969, they reacted to the awesome news that I had been awarded the university first place Prize for Freshman English by giving me an all-expense-paid trip for two - for me & a friend, to the Stratford Festival.

Life Lesson number One: the suffering gravity of your conviction is often a necessary prelude to your golden return to Good Grace!

IF you knuckle down with your own inborn talents...

You know, I can’t tell you how happy I am now, with books like these, to understand science without so much as a smattering of calculus -

Thanks to Lewis Thomas!
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,127 followers
July 1, 2015
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 of guy you wouldn’t want to be seated next to at a dinner party. He would talk your ear off, and I bet he laughed at his own jokes too.

(When I try to imagine Lewis Thomas, I picture a paunchy, white-haired fellow with a round, ruddy face. He is in his New England home, furnished with dark oak furniture, dressed in a scarlet robe, sipping coffee and typing his essays. Thomas types in spurts—banging out a few sentences and then pausing to look out his window at his well-kept yard. He always has a smile on his face when he writes, and laughs under his breath every once in a while when he thinks he has been clever. And whenever he is particularly impressed with one of his own sentences, he calls his wife over, who is an expert in feigning enjoyment.)

The best part of this book is the writing, but even here I think Thomas is irritating, vexing. He has the annoying habit of sticking in an extra tidbit after every sentence, like this. It is as if he always has something extra to say, an afterthought. After a while I just want him to shut up, be quiet. That he compared his style with Montaigne’s is obnoxious, offensive. Montaigne’s writing is free, easy; Thomas’s style is mannered, affected.

Even if Thomas could be excused for being a middling writer, it is hard to excuse his vapid ideas. The real, solid biological information contained in this book could be found in any intro-level biology textbook. But instead of actually explaining this information, Thomas just uses his educational background to pepper his essays with technical terms that a layreader will have to look up. He has no interest in educating the public in his field, but only wishes to be admired for his broad learning.

When Thomas strays away from these basic biological facts (which is often), the quality gets even worse. I would be willing to bet that, if Thomas was only slightly less intelligent, he would have ended up being a conspiracy theorist, and might have been given a show on the History Channel chasing aliens. I say this because these essays are filled with pseudo-science. Thomas repeatedly says that the majority of life on Earth is symbiotic, and this is true. But he fails to mention that the majority of these symbiotic relationships are parasitic—which undermines his rosy-eyed portrait of life on this planet, if you ask me.

Thomas seems to think that it is a biological mistake when a virus makes its host sick. I have no idea how a doctor could believe this. Most normal symptoms of sickness—sneezing, coughing, runny nose, diarrhea—are ideal ways for a virus to spread.

He also includes an essay on ways to train our internal organs, in the same way dogs can be trained. What?! Was he high when he wrote this? Wait a minute. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Lewis Thomas was a stoner, which explains why many of these essays have intellectual sophistication comparable to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Let me summarize one of his essays, “Living Language”: “Dude, what if, instead of language being a tool for humans, humans were a tool for language. Like, language is totally alive, for real! Woahhhh!”

In fact, let me summarize the whole book: “Dude, what if, like, the world was really a cell. Not, like, metaphorically though, like for real. Like, wouldn’t that be trippy? Woaahhhh!”

So I’m perplexed by the number of people who find Thomas to be “thought provoking”. I would say he is just about as thought provoking as a conversation with an intoxicated, college-aged biology major.

To summarize, I am sincerely confused as to why people like this book. The writing is pompous, and the subject matter alternately frivolous, commonplace, or provably incorrect. Thomas might have made a good science fiction writer, but he is not a good science writer.
Profile Image for Poiema.
455 reviews65 followers
April 28, 2015
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 in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him that most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: 'Bless my soul, what have we here!'"

I love the way this man personifies the moth, don't you? And look how effortless it was to figure out that "bombykol" was a powerful pheromone released by a female moth to attract a mate. A curious individual would proceed to find out a little more about this chemical. He might go on to study pheromones in other species and even how/if they effect us as humans.

In contrast, a biology textbook would probably say something like this:

"Bombykol is a chemical substance called a pheromone. It is released by female silkworms in order to attract a mate. Named after the moth's Latin name Bombyx mori, it was discovered in 1959 by Adolph Butenandt."

Somehow, those words do not give me a taste for further investigation.

It's a pleasure to come across a book that makes biology both poetic and thought provoking. This one is a keeper, and has become an integral part of my homeschooled students' high school biology class.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
478 reviews69 followers
August 4, 2021
Some books are so iconic that their influence can be seen in almost everything that follows in their genre. One example is Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, published in 1928, recounting the year he spent living at the beach on Cape Cod. In luminous prose he describes the seasons, the wildlife, and the moods of the ocean, and echos of his style can be found in almost every modern book about the great outdoors. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, said it was the only book which influenced her writing style.

Similarly, Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell changed the way popular science books were written. Previously they had been like simplified textbooks, describing their topics in writing that often sounded like bored professors addressing disinterested students. Thomas’s book changed all that; it is lively, occasionally light-hearted, and often poetic in its enthusiastic descriptions of nature. I had read it once before, but was surprised when I picked it up again and saw how long ago it was published. Lewis had a regular feature in the New England Journal of Medicine where he would supply short essays of half a dozen pages on whatever topics interested him. The selections in this book were published between 1971 and 1973, and the book itself came out in 1974.

The subjects vary widely. Some of them are indeed about cellular phenomena, but others show Lewis’s interest in communal insects such as ants, bees, and termites, and how their behaviors seem to mimic the coordinated but unconscious actions of our bodies, such as the immune system or how our organs respond to the presence or absence of biochemical stimuli. The last few essays leave biology behind altogether and enter into linguistics, deriving common terms from their Indo-European roots and thence forward through Greek and Latin and into modern languages.

Much has changed since this book was written, so many of the specific details it mentions may now be superseded. However, it remains valid for the big-picture systemic view, and is still worth the reader’s time. Lewis was writing for fellow scientists and researchers who were the readership of the magazine, so he often casually uses technical terms that non-specialists would not be familiar with. However, none of this detracts from the overall sense of the articles, which are easy to read and filled with interesting details.

In one article he has a comment on viruses which helps the reader see them from a different perspective, “The viruses, instead of being single-minded agents of disease and death, now begin to look more like mobile genes,” (p. 5) and then he reminds us that living systems are indifferent to and untouchable by most pathogens, which are specific to only their own hosts, “It takes long intimacy, long and familiar interliving, before one kind of creature can cause illness in another.” (p. 7)

In another essay he elaborates on this idea, “Pathogenicity is not the rule. Indeed, it occurs so infrequently and involves such a relatively small number of species, considering the huge population of bacteria on the earth, that it has a freakish aspect. Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, and overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biologic misinterpretation of borders.” (p. 76) He also reminds us that “Pathogenicity may be something of a disadvantage to most microbes, carrying lethal risks more frightening to them than to us. The man who catches a meningococcus is in considerably less danger for his life, even without chemotherapy, than meningococci with the bad luck to catch a man.” (p. 77)

When things do go wrong, it is often not from the effects of the specific pathogen, but our body’s own defense systems run amok:

The microorganisms that seem to have it in for us in the worst way – the ones that really appear to wish us ill – turn out on close examination to be rather more like bystanders, strays, strangers in from the cold. They will invade and replicate if given the chance, and some of them will get into our deepest tissues and set forth in the blood, but it is our response to their presence that makes the disease. Our arsenals for fighting off bacteria are so powerful, and involve so many different defense mechanisms, that we are in more danger from them than from the invaders. We live in the midst of explosive devices; we are mined. (p. 78)

The essays on communal insects focus on their astonishing ability to perform magnificent feats of engineering. Some termite mounds can extend for hundreds of square meters, with daughter colonies surrounding them, and contain 30 million individuals in multilevel structures ten meters deep, all with no centralized brain to tell them what to do. There is mystery in this distributed intelligence, all functioning on instinct and chemical messages. “Ants are more like the parts of an animal than entities on their own. They are mobile cells, circulating through a dense connective tissue of other ants in a matrix of twigs. The circuits are so intimately woven that the anthill meets all the essential criteria of an organism.” (p. 55) This idea of ants being like cells in an organism, is strengthened by watching how the behave as their numbers increase:

A solitary ant, afield, cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind; indeed, with only a few neurons strung together by fibers, he can’t be imagined to have a mind at all, much less a thought. He is more like a ganglion on legs. Four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea. They fumble and shove, gradually moving the food toward the Hill, but as though by blind chance. It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. (p. 12)

Lewis also makes an astute observation about how humans too, in groups, can behave in an almost eerily similar manner to an anthill:

Viewed from a suitable height, the aggregating clusters of medical scientists in the bright sunlight of the boardwalk at Atlantic City, swarmed there from everywhere for the annual meetings, have the look of assemblages of social insects. There is the same vibrating, ionic movement, interrupted by the darting back and forth of jerky individuals to touch antennae and exchange small bits of information; periodically, the mass casts out, like a trout-line, a long single file unerringly toward Childs’s. If the boards were not fastened down, it would not be a surprise to see them put together a nest of sorts. (p. 100)

This book is charming, and well deserves its status as a classic, and at only 150 pages, it is a quick read. Its influence on subsequent nature writing is obvious, as almost all writers employ the technique of using details to illuminate connections between living systems, while trying to inform, educate, and entertain their readers. If you haven’t read this book before, it is well worth your time.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews296 followers
May 6, 2014
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 within cells were originally independent organisms that formed into one where all prospered even though their original identity was lost.

Lewis focuses on the positive, not the competitiveness attributed to Darwin, but how organisms at all levels cooperate to survive. His concepts stand in stark contrast to popular metaphors based on “survival of the fittest”. For example, if nature is used as a model for an economic system, is competitive capitalism the correct interpretation, or would a closer one be a system where we look out for each other. Here in America where socialism is a dirty word, many would not believe nature would stoop so low.

Particularly interesting is the notion of human beings as an extension of a universe of information. Many physicists believe that the Universe is itself a computer, that its basic component is simply information, the on or off bits. Somehow these have miraculously arranged themselves so we could be here. The individual also with all his or her sensory and processing capabilities is also a computer in this network.

Lewis saw (well before the advent of the Internet) much more in our future. “We are becoming a grid, a circuitry around the earth. If we keep at it, we will become a computer to end all computers, capable of fusing all the thoughts of the world into a syncytium.” I had to look up syncytium - definition, “a mass of cytoplasm within a cell membrane that contains multiple nuclei and is often the result of cellular fusion.” Lewis uses the cell itself as a model for a mass consciousness, the emergent property that would arise from tightly knit global human cooperation.

Although some knowledge of biology is helpful, this is primarily a book of philosophy and should be accessible to most readers who want to explore human nature and human potential. Very highly recommended for a rich and rewarding experience.
Profile Image for Missy Ivey.
533 reviews30 followers
February 6, 2023
2023 - ‘70’s Immersion Reading Challenge

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (#1) by Lewis Thomas (1974; 1884 ed.) 180 pages.

This book is not what I thought it was going to be about. I have basal cell melanoma on my nose that keeps popping up. I thought I could learn a thing or two. But, nope! It contains an assortment of short essays of the authors thoughts, opinions and ideas on lives of cells, their use and their purpose for existing in different species here on earth. You will need to keep a dictionary close by.

It is very reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980), except Thomas focuses more on earth; whereas, Sagan focuses on the universe. But, like Sagan, Thomas was a bit of a dreamer and rambled on and on about a lot of “what ifs”. What if we were to communicate with aliens in outer space? What if we had control over our own cells, telling them what to do instead of them telling us what to do? Rambling! This was a long, tedious and an absolute boring read.

Just so you know where this author stands on the issue of the formation of life, he states:

The uniformity of the earth’s life, more astonishing than its diversity, is accountable by the high probability that we arrived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled. (p. 3)

You will read a lot of his opinions stated as facts about evolution with no mention of God’s helping hand in the matter what-so-ever. That’s fine. As an adult, accept it or not.

But, why would I even need to know that he is a Democrat in this sort of book? As he is describing the life cycle of a slime mold cell, he writes:

At first they are single amebocytes swimming around, eating bacteria, aloof from each other, untouching, voting straight Republican. (p. 14) Hmm!

Really? But, if he wants to go there, then I get to put my two cents in too…🙄 The Democratic party of the ’70’s is an entirely different beast today. Now, in 2023, we know exactly where the Democrats (and the established Republicans, I might add) want to take this country…to a one world government. And that means crashing our economy along with other countries throughout, and forcing us to conform to their miscellaneous mandates or else, to achieve their objective. The last crisis with a lab created virus, with forced masks, shutdowns, and so-called “vaccines or lose your job or rights”, was only a trial run. Stay tuned…there’s more to come.

“Man is embedded in nature.” (p. 1) I absolutely agree. We are dependent on everything around us just as much as everything around us is dependent on us, as humans, not destroy it with our clear cutting jungles and atomic nuclear bomb testing in the oceans and deserts, and every other way we are polluting and destroying.

Page 29 begins the start of the computer age and a bit of premonition on the author's part. It’s very basic back in the ‘70s where humans have been linked together in groups by credit bureaus, censuses, tax people, police stations, or the military. He says these different organizations will begin to touch, fuse, sort and retrieve each other, and we will all become “bits of information on an enormous grid.” He’s not worried about these little things, but about the much larger picture. The computers that will be giving instructions to cities and nations. He writes, “ If they are programmed to regulate human behavior according to today’s view of nature, we are surely in for apocalypse.” WOW! We are now there with this “green energy” garbage deal they are forcing on us, and we are just now in the beginning phases of being graded with rewards or punished in life by what and how we think. Do you conform to their ideas or not? Are you afraid of even writing your honest opinion in reviews on certain books? Why? That’s right! It’s like we are no longer living in a free country with the backlash and ostracizing of people, so far as to ruining lives.

But, the authors point and concern in the '70's was with wars and nuclear capabilities, which we may use and end up turning off our oxygen here on earth. What he would like to see is all scientists work put into computers to collaborate and one day have the computer tell us how cells decide to form a dolphin, or a tree, or a worm or…a human. Science is getting closer. They, at least, are now cloning from cells, but they will never know how to produce the cell that multiplies.


Root nodules you see on plant roots are a good thing. They “become the earth’s chief organ for nitrogen fixation” formed by the rhizobial bacteria. (P. 7) I’ve seen these a lot and never knew what or why they were on roots of plants.

…rain contains vitamin B12. Then, when farmland is cultivated, windstorms throw this vitamin B12 up throughout the atmosphere…you know…the air we breathe. (p. 10) Wow! Never knew this.

Ants are very much like humans. They farm fungi, raise aphids, as a livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm, and confused enemies, capture slaves. (p. 12)

All of us can smell ants. What? I have never smelled an ant before in my life and will probably never get a chance to. I have COVID nose. After two years, I still can’t smell a thing.

The authors concern for funding in basic biologic science was great back in the ‘70s, how much greater the concern today. Even in the ’70's, the focus was on how to deliver medicine and health care, with equity, to all the people, and funding was going towards best ways to stabilize patients with disease. Today, funding seems to be going more towards gain-of-function research to be used as bioweapons, instead of solving human diseases. Billions and billions of dollars being thrown to universities in Galveston, North Carolina, Wuhan Lab in China and untold numbers of gain-of-function labs in Ukraine paid for and supported by the ol’ American tax dollars.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts “are the two most important things on earth. Between them they produce the oxygen and arrange for its use.” (p. 84) Mitochondria - organelles which are really symbiotic bacteria colonizing together to make you. The oxygen in the atmosphere is the exhalation of the chloroplasts living in plants. (p. 10)

I did not mind it when I first learned of my descent from lower forms of life…and I feel better for having clearly risen above them in my time of evolution (p. 85)

This is the kind of hogwash he talks about in this book. What has he really “learned”? Evolution has not been proven, only a bunch of speculated guesses by scientists who sound smart and want to be right. And the last chapter, “The World’s Biggest Membrane”, on how the earth was created is also all on pure speculations and opinions.

# 1 The Lives of a Cell (1974)
#2 - Medusa and the Snail (1974)
#3 - The Wonderful Mistake (1988)

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), a physician, etymologist, essayist, educator and researcher from New York.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 6 books294 followers
March 11, 2017
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."
Profile Image for Frankh.
845 reviews160 followers
December 8, 2014
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 more humanistic fields of knowledge and endeavor such as mass communications and music. Thomas' aim is to show readers that everything in Earth is connected even if such connections are microscopic and neglected by the human populous.

Recommending this book to a general audience may seem like a strange thing, especially since most people would view this as an academic piece of literature that not everyone can enjoy in passing. True, Thomas's work belongs to classrooms and for students who actively pursue science as a vocation but I believe The Lives of a Cell has accomplished a surprising feat: anyone can enjoy the essays he had composed, and he composed them with such delicacy, craft and mastery, successfully employing a literary voice to deliver his pieces. The result is worth at least a day of your life (and I've finished this while on a bus ride during a field trip). The essays themselves are harmonious; Thomas not only has a great grasp on the fundamentals and implications of biology as a scientific field but also as a philosophy which we can look at nature and man's place in it with a renewed understanding. He definitely has an ear for music while he writes the essays; his sentences are so melodious, often resonating beyond our scholarly comprehension.

Here is a sample of his first essay that immediately gripped me by the throat:

"We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature."

There is nothing I could say that could offer you any kind of consolation if you ever pick up this book except that it's a transformative experience you shouldn't miss out on. You can view The Lives of a Cell as a scientist's journal--but don't expect it to be stifling or dreary at all. Thomas' musings and observations are quite whimsical and heartfelt. Trust him while you read his work and he may open your mind with things a lot of us are quick to overlook in our lives.

*A collection of sublime and compelling examinations on man and nature, written with deftness and childlike curiosity

Since I don't believe this book is available in print anymore unless in bargain sales, I decided to research it online and was happy to find a PDF copy which you can read HERE

Profile Image for Rebecca.
312 reviews153 followers
November 26, 2021
Science written so poetically. Opened my eyes to many things, our existence, our environment, social beings, researches , death our origin and a variety of such topics. Highly impressed.
Profile Image for Ann-Marie "Cookie M.".
1,076 reviews120 followers
April 17, 2022
I first read this book over 40 years ago and it made a remarkable impression on me. I was hesitant to reread it, because I was afraid time would have dimmed some of its effect and scientific advances would have made it seem quaint.
Not at all. I got just as high as a 60-something reader as I did when I was a 20-something budding armchair scientist.
To look at everything as a part of a living system was a relatively unique perspective for science in the 1970's, but it makes so much sense today.
The book has aged well and is worth reading.
Profile Image for Alexander Murphy.
5 reviews2 followers
May 24, 2012
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 on just humans, or animals; it stretches from topics of hidden relationships in nature, poetry, microscopic germs, the way and structure of language, music, birth and death, medicinal breakthroughs, and more.

The reason i say everyone should read it is because it's really a fascinating combination of biological science, mixed with great literature, and a speculative aspect on humans as a species. However this is also the reason i say "if you can handle it". This book is sometimes quite difficult to wrap your mind around, almost as if the author is shoving the whole biological universe into your mind on every page. Many times have i read a chapter over, just wondering if i really understood what exactly i had just read. But if you have the patience to read over, and the mental ability to actually get his studies, then in the end you will be left with a very rewarding piece of literature.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is "Once you have become permanently startled, as I am, by the realization that we are a social species, you tend to keep an eye out for the pieces of evidence that this is, by and large, good for us." This quote really explains the book, because it is a startling piece of work, and one you wont soon forget. If you have an interest in the world as a whole, how everything is interconnected, and do not mind some heavy scientific reading, then I HIGHLY recommend this book to you. It is fairly short also.
Profile Image for Nancy.
40 reviews15 followers
July 28, 2010
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, makes for a lousy experience, as I spent most of my time reading with one eyebrow raised, skeptical and annoyed. I understand that he's not a scientist, but he is writing about science with no basis in the scientific method, which seems hypocritical. And finally... although some of his language drew me in and allowed me to enjoy the experience of his poetic wanderings, most of it seemed purposeless and at times boring. Quite frankly, I found it difficult to get through certain chapters without falling asleep.

I'm giving it two stars instead of one because there were sections that I enjoyed very much, and because I love the idea of the book, if not the execution.
Profile Image for Scott.
38 reviews9 followers
November 5, 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 are themselves made up of tinier cells that are grouped together. This fact leads to the idea of the Earth itself being one gigantic jewel of a cell, suspended in solar system.

TL/DR: This book rules and even though he dates himself a good bit, I recommend this for anyone with even a passing interest in finding out more of what it is like to be a human being.
Profile Image for Michelle.
2 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2008
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 connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell."
Profile Image for Dale.
Author 28 books43 followers
November 25, 2008
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 recycled his favorite pet ideas - that language is an organic construct built in the same way ants build an anthill, for example. Reading all the essays back-to-back made those repeated motifs seem pretty redundant. Still, the essays were all well-written and made some interesting points (at least the first time each point was made it was interesting). Bonus entertainment value came from the fact that the collection was originally published around 1975. A world crowded with 3 billion people, national health care costs of $90 billion dollars a year ... ahhh, those were the good old days.
Profile Image for Michael.
218 reviews44 followers
January 8, 2016
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 wonderful essayist for saving my life and for showing me the continuity and wonder of all life. He was a brilliant thinker and a wonderful prose stylist. I read every essay he ever wrote, but this was my introduction to the thinking and writing of one of the most humane minds I have ever known.
Profile Image for General Kutuzov.
146 reviews17 followers
December 31, 2021
My 100th and final book of the year, and it was magnificient.

Imagine a Dawkins or the hapless Lawrence Krauss writing this well! You cannot, because we live in a post-literate age.

I deduct one star for the commonplace, basic-bitch comments about nuclear weapons, etc. Scientists don’t understand human nature and their comments on politics and human affairs are worse than worthless.

This is science writing of uncommon strength, style, and precision.
Profile Image for JJ Lehmann.
213 reviews3 followers
December 10, 2011
Beautifully written by an outstanding scientist...Lewis Thomas passionately writes about our world, and all that call it home, that he so obviously loves. He deftly destroys the image of a scientist as a stuffy, dispassionate lab-rat by showing the scientist in his or her true nature...that of an inquisitive, inspired seeker viewing the world with child-like wonder.
Profile Image for Dan.
411 reviews4 followers
July 28, 2022
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 connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it MOST like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is MOST like a single cell.
from "The Lives of a Cell"

It is a good thing for the entire enterprise that mitochondria and chloroplasts have remained small, conservative, and stable, since these two organelles are, in a fundamental sense, the most important living things on earth. Between them they produce the oxygen and arrange for its use. In effect, they run the place.
from "Organelles as Organisms"

Lewis Thomas is the erudite Andy Rooney. As science articles cross his desk at a respectable science rag, he muses, ponders, contemplates their relevance and how they connect to life. Taking these thoughts, he presented a regular column of short essays presenting his findings. What is welcome--especially in this initial collection--is how well written, well-thought out, and (relatively) timeless these essays are (most written in early 70s).

Thomas employs poetic language to express the wonders of the interplay of biological concepts. At times he wanders down some less interesting corridors (like his forays into language and words), but when he examines cell structure or animal sociology, his prose, creativity, and imagery take flight. It's a lonely strand between poetry and science: Many prefer to fully immerse themselves in one or the other. Lewis Thomas provides a welcome threshold where one is never quite sure where one starts and the other ends.

The real surprises, which set us back on our heels when they occur, will always be the mutants. We have already had a few of these, sweeping across the field of human thought periodically, like comets. They have slightly different receptors for the information cascading in from other minds, and slightly different machinery for processing it, so that what comes out to rejoin the flow is novel, and filled with new sorts of meaning...What we need is more crowding, more unrestrained and obsessive communication, more open channels, even more noise, and a bit more luck. 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. As bystanders, stand back and give it room is my advice.
from "On Probability and Possibility"
Profile Image for Neil R. Coulter.
1,055 reviews100 followers
March 13, 2020
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 theme of the book are seen in this quote from the start of chapter 3:
Viewed from a suitable height, the aggregating clusters of medical scientists in the bright sunlight of the boardwalk at Atlantic City, swarmed there from everywhere for the annual meetings, have the look of assemblages of social insects. (11)
In addition to showing Thomas's ironic point of view, this quote is also a theme that connects his sometimes all-over-the-place musings. Thomas wants to look at the smallest level of life and the largest and see interdependence and connection. Considering various organisms, and even the entire planet, in this way is often intriguing.

The science content of this book is kept relatively general, and probably some of the specific research Thomas mentions has by now been superseded by more precise (or even contradictory) studies. For me, though, this is not problematic, because the real star is Thomas's writing style, which is one of a kind.
34 reviews
March 1, 2020
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), and it frustrated me that no one seemed to be willing to stop and wonder "are we wrong?" (Neither the profs who were on auto pilot not the students who only cared about passing the class.) Anyone who stops and considers for a moment will realize yes, we are always wrong about something, which ends up changing everything. Who knows? That's the exciting part and that's what I found most enjoyable about this book.
Profile Image for Pinaki Swain.
80 reviews26 followers
November 20, 2022
I doubt if I have read more lucid scientific writing. Each essay is immensely readable just for the beauty of the prose.
Profile Image for Joyce.
320 reviews
December 26, 2018
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 humans are. So many things to think about here. I shall go back to reread certain small essays.

I know it's a good book when I am constantly interrupting my husband's own reading to say 'Hang on then, I need to read you something....'

Having seen some of the other reviews of how awful this book is I will say this - it is a book of essays, of thoughts inspired by science. It is not a book of scientific facts. I am not a biologist by training and I found none of the terms too technical.

Also, I suspect that those who love Dawkins and others who view the universe as an empty mechanical beast that can be viewed by reductionist thinking and embrace the (now outmoded) hard Cartesian approach, - yes these folks will HATE this book. But for those who are interested in a different view of the universe, who see it as networks of networks of living systems interacting together and who are fascinated by the observations of someone who has spent a lifetime peeking into these areas or stumbling upon them then you will like this book.

I have one other thought - those who embrace the reductionist, mechanistic view of the universe often use nasty snark, scoffing and sneering at alternate views. If you read the history of science, you see that often theories that completely changed the way the universe was understood were often met with similar self-assured contempt. That self-assured contempt is usually a sign the person has forgotten that science is theory and has gotten into a sense of "this is right and everyone else is stupid". It is something to think about.
701 reviews26 followers
July 16, 2017
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 you may trip over the casual sexism that pops up here and there. It seems unintentional, rather than anti-woman (or anti-feminist). Still, I wish he'd been ahead of the curve on this, as I can't help thinking back to how embattled second-wave feminists were at the time (and perhaps the hideous backlash against progress that we are living through now makes me extra sensitive, so I feel compelled to take note).

But the main thing about this work is how well it holds up -- the science has come a fair amount since then (says this non-scientist), yet the observations, insights, speculations, and reflections seem fresh and very thought-provoking despite being more than forty years old. After Tom has read this, we will return my father-in-law's copy, but I plan to look for a used paperback so I can keep it handy whenever I need a bit of thoughtful inspiration in the form of a brief, elegant essay.
Profile Image for John.
22 reviews68 followers
June 5, 2007
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 essays then insightfully reveal human nature. For those qualities alone, this book warrants five stars. To approach science in such a manner at a very early age, I think, would instill a great sense of admiration and accessibility.

Profile Image for Peter.
341 reviews13 followers
February 5, 2013

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 genetics and the communal nature of life were interesting; Organelles within our cells carry DNA that is exclusively theirs, not ours. The same applies to plant cells and tissue. At it's most basic level then, life is communal and I'll never see road kill quite the same way again.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,995 reviews1,103 followers
May 21, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Ian Holden.
7 reviews
September 30, 2022
Thomas seems like the type of person who raises his hand during a lecture to say “this is more of a comment than a question…” before offering a surface level analysis of the subject, completely convinced that others are in awe of his intellect. I read The Medusa and The Snail first and wasn’t impressed, but I figured that since it was his less popular book, this one would be the first tier essays. Despite being 150 pages long, it took me more than a month to finish because I dreaded going back to his vague stoner philosophy and unearned elitism.

“Bro, do you ever think about how we’re all like ants and the whole world is like our anthill? Pretty heavy. Anyway, let me explain to you why there haven’t been any good musicians since Beethoven and why I’m like this generation’s Montaigne”

-Lewis Thomas, probably

I was most engaged with his writing when he was leaking pseudoscience (eg, Grammar is biologically programmed into us, so a person raised speaking English will be genetically different from their identical twin who was raised speaking Arabic), because at least then I was feeling something. Remembering he was a respected doctor has made me lose some trust in the medical establishment.

Although I’m frustrated, I’m more disappointed that such a wonderful idea as recognizing the magic and spirituality in science has been executed so poorly. Reading the other positive reviews shows how deep this desire is, and I wish Lewis hadn’t fumbled so poorly.

For a better book that covers similar ideas, try Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
Profile Image for Sammi.
1,034 reviews35 followers
January 24, 2021
“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 book may have packed a punch when it was published ~50 years ago but I think at this point it’s just dated.

It was a nice quick read. The subtitle reads “Notes of a Biology Watcher” which is certainly is, it has short chapters each about a different topic where Lewis Thomas drops his thoughts (almost like reading journal entries).

There were some profound & thought provoking segments but overall, it was just ok. If you’re a major science nerd, go for the read - it’s not painful. But if not, I think there are better science books out there.
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