Books

A summer full of science

THE MEDUSA AND THE SNAIL by Lewis Thomas

David Weinberger July 23 1979
Books

A summer full of science

THE MEDUSA AND THE SNAIL by Lewis Thomas

David Weinberger July 23 1979

A summer full of science

Books

THE MEDUSA AND THE SNAIL by Lewis Thomas

(Penguin Canada, $10.95)

Lewis Thomas writes so quietly that a reader has to listen carefully. His is an art form rarely found these days: essays short enough to make a single point. Thomas—author of the National Book Award-winning The Lives of a Cell and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center—writes nontechnically about the meaning of biology and the meaning of life. Because of the recent developments in understanding in detail the chemistry of organic activity, biology and life seem to be different topics. By using each as a metaphor to explain the other, Thomas shows us that the two are—or at least can be—one.

Rather than starting with the grand thought to organize the data, he starts with the small and finds what is grand about it. The tone is reasonable, the attitude humble. Above all, his topic is the self. Beginning with the weird symbiotic relationship of a species of jellyfish and snail, he maintains that the self is primary, multiple and only to be understood in relation to its world. He writes about the case of a woman who had eight selves: “Eight strikes me personally as a reasonably small and easily manageable number. It is the simultaneity of their appearance that is the real problem . . . I’ve had, in my time, more than I could possibly count or keep track of.” Biologist, etymologist, humorist, fantasist, theorist—many of Thomas’ selves make their appearance in the 29 essays that compose this book. Some of them are outright humor pieces, which recall the works of E.B. White, but even the serious leave us smiling at the perfection of his insight.

Some of his theories are far-fetched, some twist the controversies that rake his science; for example, he talks about the possibility of there being genes for usefulness without explicitly mentioning the fierce debate over sociobiology that is in the background of his remarks. The book is most thought-provoking when Thomas is at his smallest. A quirky essay on New Yorkers dumping goldfish into the ponds that form in untended excavations leads us to ask about the relation of cities and the wild as mediated by pets. His essay on Montaigne makes us want to read the latter entirely. It is a book all who think and all who want to write will enjoy.

THE EIGHTH DAY OF CREATION:

MAKERS OF THE REVOLUTION IN BIOLOGY by Horace Freeland Judson (Musson, $21.50)

Laypeople often think that molecular biology is reductionist: by concentrating on each fibre of the “tapestry of life,” the grand design is missed. Judson’s history of the science brings us face to face with what the scientists have come to see: not an arid system of inanimate chemicals but an infinitesimal world as complex and rich as life itself.

Judson makes things clear—not easy, for he is not popularizing in the usual sense: he retains and explains all the technical details, making the book a chore to finish. The information begins to blur, one forgets the difference between plectonemic and paranemic, the detail is overwhelming and then, because Judson has been such a patient guide, when the scientist glimpses the

end, we share in the wonder. There are many such moments in the book, for: “Biology has proceeded not by great setpiece battles but by multiple smallscale encounters—guerrilla actions— across the landscape . . .” Not one Newton or Einstein but hundreds, not one blinding flash but many. Insight, Judson implies, is a process, not a moment. It is to his great credit that at each step he narrates what was not yet known. It’s easy to forget, for instance, just how recent is the discovery that DNA is the stuff of which genes are made.

Judson maintains that the revolution has consisted of a growing appreciation of the specificity of biological molecules. The structure of DNA contains a mind-boggling amount of specific information which brings about production of the specific molecules needed, themselves highly specific in structure and function. The three divisions of the book

describe and explain the discovery of each of these facts.

He has interviewed 128 people involved (including all the major figures: James Watson, Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, Max Perutz). Scientific breakthroughs depend upon many factors: chance meetings, clues buried in papers, the happenstance of suitable collaborators and a scientist’s 40-year search for the structure of a single molecule. Judson acutely discerns the varying styles of the scientists in their papers, methods of approach in the lab, manners of speaking, processes of insight. Contrary to James Watson’s gossipy memoir, The Double Helix, Judson emphasizes that co-operation, not competition, is the norm of scientific intercourse.

This book is a model of research, clarity and perception. The style is fluid, the material dense. All who have ever said, “They murder to dissect,” should read it: it will leave them gaping in awe at molecular biologists and the world— our world, our bodies—they have uncovered.

BROCA'S BRAIN by Carl Sagan (Random House, $16.50)

Carl Sagan wears both hats of the popularizer, explaining to the general audience the talk of the astronomical town and attempting to reveal the meaning of science’s answers to the Ultimate Questions. The most absorbing chapters, which are very good indeed, dissect the pseudosciences (such as Erich von Däniken’s divine astronauts and Immanuel Velikovsky’s rampant Venus). “The best antidote for pseudoscience ... is science,” and science, Sagan says, is a method, not a body of knowledge. He is refreshingly open-minded, arguing for scientists to take pseudosciences seriously, to dismiss them only on the best scientific grounds. All of the book is well-written and the chapters unmasking the magicians and charlatans are delightful.

When writing about his own field, however, only those already interested in astronomy will find him compelling. Although there is almost always something worth contemplating in what Sagan says, his curiosity and optimism are not infectious enough. The worst essays are those in which he discusses the Ultimate Questions and finds himself facing the competing answers of the great religions. He is eager to maintain science’s finds without having to deny religion. For instance, instead of saying Egypt was never visited by plagues, he offers a tentative scientific explanation of them. Here Sagan fails to make a distinction he makes for science: he treats religion as a body of knowledge, not as a method of belief— a stumbling

block for all who think that religion is more than a catalogue of impossible events.

Finally, Sagan offers an explanation of religion based on the commonality of the experience of birth, and suggests it accounts for the prevalent belief in the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe: the afterlife experiences reported by those near death may be due to a hidden recollection of the infant’s journey from the womb. It’s a sloppily argued thesis that Sagan should subject to the rigors of his own scientific method. David Weinberger