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The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher

(Notes of a Biology Watcher #2)

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,522 ratings  ·  88 reviews
The medusa is a tiny jellfish that lives on the ventral surface of a sea slug found in the Bay of Naples. Readers will find themselves caught up in the fate of the medusa and the snail as a metaphor for eternal issues of life and death as Lewis Thomas further extends the exploration of a man and his world begun in "The Lives of a Cell." Among the treasures in this magnific ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published January 1st 1995 by Penguin Books (first published 1974)
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Petal X Planet
This is a book of essays, mostly science-based. They aren't bad but the author has neither the depth nor the style of F. González-Crussí. Gonzalez-Crussi is one of my favourite essay writers whose philosophical and scientific ponderings based around pathology and mortality are impossible to review, at least for me.

The best of the essays was the first one, the medusa and the snail. The medusa is a lovely jellyfish, if you like jellyfish, which I do, (view spoiler) ...more
Lynne King
Mar 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
“If Montaigne had possessed a deep knowledge of twentieth-century biology, he would have been Lewis Thomas.”

So quoted Edward O. Lewis on the back cover of this paperback. Now I’m beginning to feel that I’m about to commence upon another magical mystery tour as I’ve never heard of this individual before. According to the Wikipedia, and I hope the following information is correct:

“Edward O. Wilson is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (
Jan 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thomas is best known for The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, a book I read in high school of which I have only the vaguest of recollections. I remember liking it, but it seems to have dribbled away. I can't find that old copy either. I'm buying both books through Abebooks for under $7. Both won awards & are collections of essays published in 1974, many in the New England Journal of Medicine. His wonders wander over a variety of topics; medicine, biology, general science, linguistics, &a ...more
Adrian Colesberry
I read this back in high school, but I reread the introduction recently. There's a fascinating discussion of the history of pharmaceutics in the 20th century. When Thomas was trained as a doctor, the pharmaceutical industry, then patent medicine industry, was being placed firmly under the thumb of doctors, who had surgical techniques and other therapies that far surpassed the effectiveness of the medicines being sold. Then sulfa drugs and penicillin changed the game and pharmaceutics took over, ...more
Apr 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature. Indeed, I regard this as the major discovery of the past hundred years of biology. It is, in its way, an illuminating piece of news… It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.

In the blurb for The Medusa and the Snail, it says that listening to this book on
Dec 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting science author writes on interesting social implications of science and scientific examples of social organization. The book is from 1974 but still feels pretty current - I'm actually surprised we've known some of this stuff since the 70s. The topics were wide ranging, including death, symbiosis, the history of science, specifically about antibiotics and the medical world, and some predictions of the future of science. One of my favorite points was that the world is made of very c ...more
Mar 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I love this man's mind. This is the first I've read by him. I've neglected "The lives of a cell; notes of a biology watcher" despite several people reccomending it to me. Now I am eager to read it. This Thomas is playful, funny and loves biology, music and language and somehow blends the three in some of his essays. A delight.
Terry Bonner
Apr 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
What can I say? This was the book that inspired me to go to medical school. It will always hold a special place in my heart.
Vicki Cline
This book contains several interesting essays, mostly on science but some more philosophical ones.
Jun 21, 2009 rated it liked it
I have fairly jumbled thoughts about this book - perhaps because the writing style is so disorderly itself. The book opens with some really interesting and unique perspectives on the state of science and society in general. There were a few key phrases that really caught my attention and inspired one of those "aha!" moments at are the hallmark of a master writer and observationist. Unfortunately, what starts out as a quirky philosophical romp with the author rapidly sours. The essay style become ...more
Jan 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
I read the famous first book by this author, "The Lives of a Cell", way back in my college years and loved it. I think I also read this collection of essays, but when I came across it recently, I felt like it was worth a second look. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The writing style is clever and witty, and the insights are good even after three decades. Since Lewis was a physician by training, many of the essays are grounded in medical research or issues. But he also considers language, music, etymol ...more
Cindy Sikkema
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is aaaahhhhhmazing! So amazing, in fact, that if I were Queen of the World I would make it required reading for the entire planet.

It's filled with brilliant, slightly off kilter observations about all kinds of things, most of which circle back to the human experience. I'd quote some of it here, but it's better to get into Dr. Thomas' head and splash around a little -- an undeniably refreshing experience.

Read it and I doubt you'll come away with any less than one (or two hu
Neilina Corbeau
Nov 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011, biology
It took me a little time to adjust to Lewis Thomas' sense of humour. It's somewhat unconventional. But once I got it, it was kinda hilarious. The last popular science book I read was by Richard Dawkins and Thomas certainly has a very different writing style than Dawkins. It was great though. Some great ideas were expressed. It did feel very tangental at times, but I was ok with that. The part on Transcendental Metaworry was pretty hilarious. The current state of health, cloning, and other topics ...more
May 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: biology
Lewis’ second book was a bit of a letdown after reading his first, The Lives of a Cell. That book had a central theme - the cell as a model for society – and some fascinating ideas flowed from the model. Some are shared in my GR review of Lives. The Medusa and the Snail is an odd and end collection of mundane essays about medical practice, etymology, and random aspects of society. You may want to skip this one, but do read The Lives of a Cell.
Brian Switek
Jan 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Ah, a book from a time when science writers composed beautiful essays that respected the intelligence of the reader. The Medusa and the Snail is a wandering exploration of our nature that is fully at home with the questions that drive discovery, science, and our struggle to come to terms with ourselves. It's so comfortable a chat that the implications of the last page and a half sneak up on you, yet the thread was there all along. I should have read this earlier, but I'm glad I read it now.
Jake Berlin
Jul 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
just as delightful as thomas's classic "the lives of a cell". as always, some chapters will thrill you more than others, but there's always plenty for everyone -- not to mention just "plenty"; rarely has such a short book packed so many ideas into it. and thomas's writing is as brilliant and lovely on the ear as ever. "on punctuation" is a fun little romp that any writing nerd would enjoy.
Heather Denkmire
Aug 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
What a lovely little book. I don't know why it feels little to me; the subjects are pithy and the thoughts are big. I suppose it's how he made everything to basic and simple. I especially liked his sense of humor. (Paraphrasing:) "Consider highly complex systems such as a dense urban center or a hamster."
Kathy  Petersen
This is a thoroughly pleasant little book, a compilation of short, simple, thoughtful essays about a random collection of topics by a physician whose interests are centered on biology but range more widely and quite articulately. With that excessively long but grammatically correct sentence, I will stop.
Sam Motes
Jun 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
An interesting collection of thoughts by a prominent biologist on a diverse set of topics. His since of humor makes this an engaging read.
Judy Richey
Jul 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A must read for anyone who loves nature, one of my top 10
Dec 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Lewis Thomas has a way of making science understandable and attractive to the "lay" scientist. Barring his evolutionary worldview, he is spot on.
Jan 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is a book that I will cherish. If asked what book I'd choose if I were in isolation The Medusa and the Snail would be a fierce contender for MVP.
Oct 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
For those with an interest in nature and interesting musing
Brad Belschner
Nov 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: natural-history
This is a collection of beautiful essays by Lewis Thomas. Think of it as scientific poetry.
Steve H
I'm thinking of adding a "nostalgia" shelf because I read two other Lewis Thomas books back in the late 1970s and early 80s, and listening to this took me back to times sitting on the patio or lying in my bed at my parents' house, absorbing these delightfully thoughtful, informing, and pre-snarky essays. It also reminded me of listening to my Dad read New Yorker articles to anybody within earshot.

I'm going to have to think some more about what sets Thomas's writing apart from the ess
Jan 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think if I wrote books, I'd want to write one like this. It's a collection of short essays on various things L. Thomas found interesting. Some of the main themes are medicine, language, science, society, and semicolons. He gives a nice perspective on things. His social criticisms are just as relevant now as they were when the book was written in the 70s. For example, he's skeptical about popular views on health, fitness, and disease and would probably have a lot to say about today's various he ...more
Jacqueline Bussjaeger
May 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Lewis Thomas has always seemed to me to be a man in tune with the universe. His writing is full of a sort of grandfather humor, and his sense of hope for the future of humanity and scientific progress is heartening. I especially enjoyed the chapter about worry. It’s a nice reminder not to take things so seriously all the time. Thomas refers to Montaigne as a refreshing series of writings to come back to again and again, no matter how mundane the topic seems; I think Thomas himself is that writer ...more
Around the Year in 52 Books 2017 Reading Challenge. A non-fiction (National Book Award Winner).

More essays which had been previously published in the late 1970's and finally compiled into this book. Much like Lives of a Cell.
Patrick Hanlon
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fresh, still-insightful read despite being written in the late 70’s. Much of the science is still relevant and Thomas has a nuanced, eclectic and rise look at the world throughout the essays. Must read more.
David Rubenstein
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club
Mildly interesting - little to remember or recommend.
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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. H

Other books in the series

Notes of a Biology Watcher (2 books)
  • The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
“Worrying is the most natural and spontaneous of all human functions. It is time to acknowledge this, perhaps even to learn to do it better.” 4 likes
“Goldfish in a glass bowl are harmless to the human mind, maybe even helpful to minds casting about for something, anything, to think about. But goldfish let loose, propagating themselves, worst of all surviving in what has to be a sessile eddy of the East River, somehow threaten us all. We do not like to think that life is possible under some conditions, especially the conditions of a Manhattan pond. There are four abandoned ties, any number of broken beer bottles, fourteen shoes and a single sneaker, and a visible layer, all over the surface, of that grayish-green film that settles on all New York surfaces. The mud at the banks of the pond is not proper country mud but reconstituted Manhattan landfill, ancient garbage, fossilized coffee grounds and grapefruit rind, the defecation of a city. For goldfish to be swimming in such water, streaking back and forth mysteriously in small schools, feeding, obviously feeding, looking as healthy and well-off as goldfish in the costliest kind of window-box aquarium, means something is wrong with our standards. It is, in some deep sense beyond words, insulting.” 3 likes
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