The Full Wiki

Lewis Thomas: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lewis Thomas
Born November 25, 1913
Flushing, New York
Died December 3, 1993
Alma mater Princeton University, Harvard Medical School

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.

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.


Parallels to Gaia Theory

In the book The Lives of a Cell, Thomas makes an observation very similar to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis:

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.

On Probability and Possibility

In 1974, Thomas wrote in The Lives of a Cell that the function of humans is communication.

"We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind, so compulsively and with such speed that the brains of mankind often appear, functionally, to be undergoing fusion."

Thirty-some years later, with the developments in communication such as the Internet and all its derivatives (newsgroups, email, websites), the import of these words takes on a whole new meaning.

"Or perhaps we are only at the beginning of learning to use the system, with almost all our evolution as a species still ahead of us. Maybe the thoughts we generate today and flick around from mind to mind...are the primitive precursors of more complicated, polymerized structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought.

The mechanism is there [n.b.: in the human brain], and there is no doubt that it is already capable of functioning...

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."


  • The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974, Viking Press: ISBN 0-670-43442-6, Penguin Books, 1995 reprint: ISBN 0-14-004743-3
  • The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1979, Viking Press: ISBN 0-670-46568-2, Penguin Books, 1995 reprint: ISBN 0-14-024319-4
  • Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, 1983, Viking Press: ISBN 0-670-70390-7, Penguin Books, 1995 reprint: ISBN 0-14-024328-3
  • The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher, 1983, Viking: ISBN 0-670-79533-X, Penguin Books, 1995 reprint: ISBN 0-14-024327-5
  • Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher, 1990. Little Brown & Co ISBN 0-316-84099-8, Welcome Rain, 2000 ISBN 1-56649-166-5
  • The Fragile Species, 1992, Scribner, ISBN 0-684-19420-1, Simon & Schuster, 1996 paperback: ISBN 0-684-84302-1

External links

  1. ^ Lewis Thomas: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Statistically the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you would think the mere fact of existence would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913 - December 3, 1993) was a physician, author, administrator, educator, policy advisor and researcher. He served as Dean of Yale Medical School, Dean of the New York University School of Medicine and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute.



The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974)

  • The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
    • "The Music of This Sphere"
  • It is when physicians are bogged down by their incomplete technologies, by the innumerable things they are obliged to do in medicine when they lack a clear understanding of disease mechanisms, that the deficiencies of the health-care system are most conspicuous. If I were a policy-maker, interested in saving money for health care over the long haul, I would regard it as an act of high prudence to give high priority to a lot more basic research in biologic science.
    • "The Technology of Medicine"
  • Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.
    • "Ceti"
  • We hanker to go on, even in the face of plain evidence that long, long lives are not necessarily pleasurable in the kind of society we have arranged thus far. We will be lucky if we can postpone the search for new technologies for a while, until we have discovered some satisfactory things to do with the extra time.
    • "The Long Habit"
  • 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 interwoven that the anthill meets all the essential criteria of an organism.
    • "Antaeus in Manhattan"
  • If we have learned anything at all in this century, it is that all new technologies will be put to use, sooner or later, for better or worse, as it is in our nature to do.
    • "Autonomy"
  • I can think of a few microorganisms, possibly the tubercle bacillus, the syphilis spirochete, the malarial parasite, and a few others, that have a selective advantage in their ability to infect human beings, but there is nothing to be gained, in an evolutionary sense, by the capacity to cause illness or death. Pathogenicity may be something of a disadvantage for most microbes, carrying lethal risks far 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.
    • "Germs"
  • Cells are required to stick precisely to the point. Any ambiguity, any tendency to wander from the matter at hand, will introduce grave hazards for the cells, and even more for the host in which they live. Minor inaccuracies may cause reactions in which neighboring cells are recognized as foreign, and done in. There is a theory that the process of aging may be due to the cumulative effect of imprecision, a gradual degrading of information. It is not a system that allows for deviating.
    • "Information"
  • Statistically the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you would think the mere fact of existence would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.
    • "On Probability and Possibility"

The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979)

[Viking/Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0-140-24319-4]

  • Left to ourselves, mechanistic and autonomic, we hanker for friends.
    • "Tucson Zoo" (p. 9)
  • Be individuals, solitary and selfish, is the message. Altruism, a jargon word for what used to be called love, is worse than weakness, it is sin, a violation of nature. Be separate. Do not be a social animal. But this is a hard argument to make convincingly when you have to depend on language to make it. You have to print out leaflets or publish books and get them bought and sent around, you have to turn up on television and catch the attention of millions of other human beings all at once, and then you have to say to all of them, all at once, all collected and paying attention: be solitary; do not depend on each other. You can’t do this and keep a straight face.
    • "The Tucson Zoo" (p. 10)
  • Maybe there is a single spot, just one, where living organisms are holed up. Maybe so, but if so this would be the strangest thing of all, absolutely incomprehensible. For we are not familiar with this kind of living. We do not have solitary, isolated creatures. It is beyond our imagination to conceive of a single form of life that exists alone and independent, unattached to other forms.
    • "The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around" (p. 13)
  • Everything here is alive thanks to the living of everything else.
    • "The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around" (p. 14)
  • As a people we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body.
    • "The Health-Care System" (p. 47)
  • The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behavior control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.
    • "On Cloning a Human Being" (p. 52)
  • I agree that you might clone some people who would look amazingly like their parental cell donors, but the odds are that they’d be almost as different as you or me, and certainly more different than any of today’s identical twins.
    • "On Cloning a Human Being" (p. 53)

The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983)

[Viking/Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0-140-24327-5]

  • I have always had a bad memory, as far back as I can remember.
    • "Amity Street" (p. 1)
  • It is my belief, based partly on personal experience but partly also arrived at by looking around at others, that childhood lasts considerably longer in the males of our species than in the females.
    • "Scabies, Scrapie" (p. 236)


  • The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from tackling the matter at hand.

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address