From amino acid soup to the B-Minor Mass

From amino acid soup to the B-Minor Mass March 21, 2018


One of my favorite scenes
Not directly relevant, but gorgeous (Wikimedia Commons)


Unfortunately, we lost Lewis Thomas quite a number of years ago, in 1993, at the age of eighty.  Not only did he have a distinguished medical career (graduating from Princeton and from Harvard Medical School, then serving as dean of Yale Medical School and the New York University School of Medicine before assuming the presidency of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center), but he was a fine writer.  Specifically, he was a first-rate essayist.  Author of such books as Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, he won the National Book Award three times (twice, in Arts and Letters and in The Sciences, for The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, and a third time, in The Sciences, for The Medusa and the Snail.)


Lewis Thomas is still worth reading.  And, in his honor, each year The Rockefeller University awards its Lewis Thomas Prize for artistic achievenment by a scientist.


Here are a couple of passages from his collection of essays titled The Fragile Species (1992):


I . . . have troubles of my own with evolutionary biology.  Not first principles, mind you, not the big picture, mostly just the details.  I understand about randomness and chance, and selection, and adaptation, and all that, and I now know better than to talk, ever, about progress in evolution, never mind purpose.  My problems come when I think about the earliest form of known life, those indisputable bacterial cells in rocks 3.7 billion years old, our Ur-grandparents for sure, then nothing but bacteria for the next two and one-half billion years, and now the chestnut tree in my backyard, my Abyssinian cat Jeoffry, the almost-but-not-quite free-living microbes living in our cells disguised as mitochondria, and, just by the way, our marvelous, still-immature, dangerous selves, brainy enough to menace all nature unless distracted by music.  We need a better word than chance, even pure chance, for that succession of events, while still evading any notion of progress.  But to go all the way from a clone of archaebacteria, in just 3.7 billion years, to the B-Minor Mass and the Late Quartets, deserves a better technical term for the record than randomness.  (4-5)


Francis Crick suggests that the improbability of life forming itself here on earth is so high that we must suppose it drifted in from outer space, shifting the problem to scientists in some other part of the galaxy or beyond.  (20)



Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!