Saturday, March 15, 2014

Remembering Lewis Thomas -- a Saturday reprise

I've been reading again after many years Lewis Thomas' Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The guy really was one of the best stylists and insightful thinkers to ever write about science.

He is best known, of course, for The Lives of a Cell. The great irony is that he died of Waldenstrom's disease -- an abnormal proliferation of the white blood cells. It is as if Audubon had died of bird flu, or Thoreau had drowned in Walden Pond.

My taste in late night music is rather different, my brain too tired for Mahler. Something less demanding, more appropriate to the hour, such as Chopin's nocturnes.

But I imagine Thomas as a man who best dealt with complexity in darkness. In his view, all of life is a blur of collaboration, accommodation, exchange, barter, compromise, doubt. He was not without hope for humanity, or for a kind of immortality. He once told a reporter: "For one thing, our individual coming to an end may have some connection with the continuity of the species. It may be as important for us to die as it is for plant life to die. So we die and live in our successors."

What he wanted from life was to be useful: "The thing we're really good at as a species is usefulness. If we paid more attention to this biological attribute, we'd get a satisfaction that cannot be attained by goods or knowledge."

Certainly, Thomas was useful. In contributing as a physician to the health and well-being of his fellow men and women. In writing essays of a hopeful -- though sometimes melancholy -- humanism. In being one of the most effective philosophers trying to heal our fractured culture: scientific six days of the week, religious on Sunday.

The dichotomy made no sense to Thomas. Deep in the minutia of his science he discovered a sustaining source of awe and wonder. Because he had the courage to accept the blurriness of his selfhood, he was rewarded with mystic's view of the wholeness of creation.

(This post originally appeared in April 2007.)