Thursday, October 12, 2006

Remembering Lewis Thomas (long post)

Some of us do. Talking to Anil Ananthaswamy of New Scientist last week, we agreed that it's not right no-one has mentioned the Lewis Thomas yet in the lists for top science book. One of the great humane essayists of the last decades of the 20thC, he's been one my my heroes since I discovered him in the late 1970s (slightly earlier than Anil...). I think of him now as one of the heirs of Loren Eiseley. Both are now fading into that posthumous literary limbo which awaits most of us.

To remind others what Thomas was about, here's a piece Anil composed when he was a science writing student at UC, Santa Cruz, which he says is amateurish. I think we should all have such students...

I've omitted some words at the beginning. Thomas, who died in 1993, was a bright boy who became a prominent doctor. Then... over to Anil:

Somewhere in the midst of this illustrious career, Thomas turned into an essayist. In 1970, he gave the keynote address for a symposium on "Inflammation." Since such conferences were usually heavy going, his talk "was designed to lighten proceedings at the outset by presenting a rather skewed view of inflammation." Several months after the conference, a pamphlet-sized reproduction of his talk was circulated to the participants. Soon, Franz Ingelfinger, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, called Thomas. Ingelfinger had liked the piece, and wanted Thomas to write essays for the Journal. He was to write one essay each month, due on Thursday of the third week, no longer than one Journal page in length, on any topic of his liking. He would not be paid, but in return, Ingelfinger promised Thomas that no one would edit his piece.
Ingelfinger had been Thomas’ senior at the City Hospital internship, and Thomas had been accustomed to taking orders from him. "Our relationship began, and continued, with him giving orders and me carrying them out," wrote Thomas. So, when Ingelfinger asked for the essays, "I could not say no," said Thomas.
But Thomas, his "Good bad verse" aside, had only written scientific papers — about two hundred of them, in the "relentlessly flat style required for absolute unambiguity in every word." The essay gave him a chance to flex his prose mus¬cles. He started in earnest: outlining ideas, listing items to cover in each piece, organizing thoughts in orderly sequences, and writing "several dreadful essays which I could not bring myself to reread."
He gave up organization, eschewed method, and held fast till the deadline passed. Then, on the weekend, two days after the deadline, late at night, he wrote without outline or planning, as fast as he could. His first essay was called "Lives of a Cell."
This seminal essay, and others, appeared monthly in the Journal. Soon, Thomas received a letter from Joyce Carol Oates, whom he had never met, advis¬ing him to collect the essays for a book. Book publishers and agents followed with similar advice, but all wanted him to rewrite and add pieces to make a coherent book. Thomas declined: he had no time. Then, Elisabeth Sifton, an editor at The Viking Press, offered to publish the essays — no rewrites, no new pieces. Thomas said yes over the phone, and the book was published. Titled "The Lives of a Cell — Notes of a Biology Watcher," it became a best-seller, and won the National Book Award.
Thomas went on to write other highly acclaimed books: "The Medusa and the Snail — More Notes of a Biology Watcher," "The Youngest Science — Notes of a Medicine Watcher," "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony," "Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher," and "The Fragile Species."
Thomas wrote his books in longhand. "I had a word processor once," said Thomas in an interview with the Washington Post. "When I had more or less mastered it, we had a chimney fire. I found the word processor melted to the table on which it had been placed. It looked like a piece of found art, and then I decided to go back to longhand."
Maybe because of the longhand, or the unfettered writing late at night, past deadline, Thomas’ essays are like extended musings, and flights of fancy, mostly centered on biology and humanity. The details are keenly observed, the prose is lucid for most part (for he was as much a lover of language, as he was of the bio¬logical world), the tone is warm, modest, confident, and optimistic, like a scholarly conversation with a kindly, erudite man, which he was.
His essays, which mostly stuck to the 1,200 word limit (dictated by the size of a page in the Journal), are elegant. Using biology as a cornerstone, Thomas mused about our species, it’s past and future. One of his major themes was how lit¬tle we know about the world we live in. He constantly wrote about symbiosis, in various guises, an exploration of the intricate partnerships that exist around us. The medusa (a jellyfish) and the snail (a sea slug) formed the basis of one such essay, in which he explored their bizarre and unique relationship. He argued that altruism was better than selfishness, that, in nature, the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts.
Music was important to him, a reminder of our accomplishments as a species. So was language. He was an amateur philologist, in love with words."Every word, no exceptions, is an enchantment, a wonder, a marvel," he wrote. In his book, Et Cetera, Et Cetera, he explored this fascination.
Some evolutionary biologists criticized him for suggesting that the earth’s body represents a kind of organism, a theme that kept cropping up in many of his essays. The Earth, to Thomas, resembled an enormous embryo, still developing toward its yet unknown future.
He was enamored by the idea that we are here by chance, a freak of nature. "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of sur¬prise," he wrote.
Toward the end of his writing career Thomas shifted themes: AIDS, drug abuse, aging, and a concern for our planet. But he maintained his optimism, albeit cautiously: "I have a high regard for our species, for all its newness and immaturity as a member of the biosphere. As evolutionary time is measured, we have arrived here a few moments ago and we have a lot of growing up to do. If we succeed, we could become a sort of collective mind for the earth, the thought of the earth," he wrote. "I trust us to have the will to keep going, and to maintain as best we can the life of the planet."
Encouraging words from a splendid specimen of the species, a man dedi¬cated to the health of individuals, but never forgetting to exhort us to look beyond ourselves, at the larger picture.

A footnote. Maybe the fixed word length is a good way to get memorable results? It brings to mind one of Thomas's peers as an essayist, Miroslav Holub, great poet and pretty respectable immunologist, who wrote a newspaper colummn of 43 lines. Collected in The Jingle Bell Principle (Bloodaxe, 1992), they are a great delight. (Current Amazon sales rank: 1,592,147). The essays in the better-known The Dimension of the Present Moment (Faber, 1990) are slightly longer, but the subject matter more scientific. I'll post a bit of Holub another time.


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