Friday, June 03, 2011

Notes of a Biology Watcher

There are many quite good books about science and religion around these days. (Not to mention several not so good ones). This month I want to call your attention to an author from the ‘70s, Lewis Thomas. Thomas was a physician and a cancer researcher who began writing essays for the New England Journal of Medicine. Those essays were collected and published as several books, the first of which was The Lives of a Cell. You can read more about Lewis Thomas in his New York Times obituary and in this article by Roger Rosenblatt.

What was cutting edge scientific discovery when Thomas wrote these essays is now “old” science. Some of it may have been significantly modified by more recent research. What hasn’t changed is how amazing our world is and the way scientists feel about their work. And this is why I want to suggest that you read a bit of Dr. Thomas’ work. He doesn’t write about “science and religion”. I’m not sure if he would have considered himself a Christian, all though I don’t think he did. But if you want insight into the way biologists feel about biology, no one does that better than Lewis Thomas.

I read Lewis Thomas’ books years ago when they were first published. They have sat in my bookcase for many years. A friend’s post on Facebook caused me to remember Dr. Thomas and to take his books off the shelf and dip into them once again. I was in high school when The Lives of a Cell was published ( 1974). My aunt gave me a copy because she thought I might like the book. It was, for a high school student, a somewhat challenging read because Thomas was writing for fellow physicians and assumed a certain knowledge base. But he wrote so beautifully. This book was the first time I encountered someone who gave voice to my developing sense of the beauty and wonder of biology. He, in many ways, gave me the courage and permission to think about science as more than mere facts. His work nudged me to begin thinking more holistically and less compartmentally about my life and my work. It took me decades to work much of this out, but Lewis Thomas’ sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of the world opened my eyes.

Some things are difficult to explain. Faith can be hard to explain to those who don’t believe. That biology as a scientific discipline that is full of beauty and worthy of our absolute amazement can be difficult to explain. If you are not a scientist ( or even if you are), I encourage you to read one –or more- of Lewis Thomas’ books. You will receive a wonderful insight into the mind of a scientist. Few scientists are as articulate as Lewis Thomas was. In fact, few essayists are as articulate as he was. He spoke eloquently of the experience that is common to his colleagues.

Let me leave you with an excerpt from his essay, “On Embryology” found in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. This essay was written just after the birth of the first “test tube” baby. Lewis reminds us that the technology shouldn’t amaze us as much as the biology should.

For the real amazement, if you want to be amazed, is the process. You start out as a single cell derived from the coupling of a sperm and an egg, this divides into two, then four, then eight, and so on, and at a certain stage there emerges a single cell which will have as its progeny the human brain. The mere existence of that cell should be one of the great astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell. It is an unbelievable thing, and yet there it is, popping neatly into its place amid the jumbled cells of every one of the several billion human embryos around the planet, just as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do.

If you like being surprised, there’s the source. One cell is switched on to become the whole trillion-cell, massive apparatus for thinking and imagining and, for that matter, being surprised….

No one has the ghost of an idea how this works,and nothing else in life can ever be so puzzling. If anyone does succeed in explaining it, within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another, around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.

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