The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas is one of those rare books; small, sweet, and sublime. When I picked it up at a second hand book store, I was impressed by its size, or the lack of it: 6.9 x 4.2 x 0.7 inches. I was not intimidated by the author. I was not acquainted with Lewis Thomas’ name at that time, not even at the Wikipediac level. I was later to learn – from Wikipedia – that Thomas was a physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher; he attended Princeton and Harvard as a student, and went on to become the Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. As evident, he had much preparation and many positions.
His writing has no affectation of any of them.
I am glad I was drawn to the book by its dimensions. It is of a size which creates space for itself in any luggage, however full. Thus it was very easy reading while travelling or waiting to travel. While reading, I discovered the books many dimensions.
Thomas qualifies the title “The Lives of a Cell” by the subtitle “Notes of a Biology Watcher”. That a person of his eminence calls himself a mere “watcher” indicates some humility. A glance at the headings of the 29 essays also points to considerable versatility. Thomas has written specifically about biology, society, language, music, information, computers, the nature of scientific research and the planning of science et al.; and generally about life and death -- the mortality of Man as well as the annihilation of man. Even after more than three and half decades since the book came out, many of Thomas’ ideas are fresh, astonishingly few are dated, and some are eerily prescient. For example, some of his projections seem to prognosticate an increasingly wired world, the burgeoning online social media of the current decade, even Second Life avatars (“software selves”, he calls them.)
Thomas probably did not want to weave a common thread through the collection, but connection seems to be a unifying theme of the book. Thomas talks about the wonder of how cells, organisms, species, ideas, are connected across the terrestrial and celestial worlds and he takes the wonder to a new level. He talks with a scientist’s precision, and an artist’s poetry.
The Lives of a Cell is a masterclass for appreciating the complexity of our living world, while awaking to its romance.