Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas

I picked up this book from the science section of a library book sale- for $1. (Nooice.) The name Lewis Thomas sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it until I read this quotation on the cover of the book: “If Wordsworth had gone to medical school, he might have produced something very like the essays of Lewis Thomas.” Then, it clicked; Thomas’ name is one thrown around by other mainstream science writers when they mention their role models. Late Night Thoughts is a short anthology of articles he variously published by Discover magazine, New England Journal of Medicine, and The New York Review of Books.

His “bio”, printed on the inside cover of the book, is astonishing. I didn’t bother reading it until a funny exchange with Grace occasioned it. In the essay “Things Unflattened By Science”, Thomas mentions E. Coli produces a protein which either is, or is very much like, Insulin. I mentioned it to Grace, who matter-of-factly said she doubted that was true.

At that point, I referred to his bio, and in good humor I asked her something along the lines of, “Really, you doubt the truth of something said by a former Professor of Pediatric Research at the University of Minnesota; Chairman of the Department of Pathology and Medicine; Dean of New York University-Bellevue Medical Center; Chairman of the Department of Pathology and Dean at Yale Medical School; President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center…?”

I might have been annoyed her if Thomas’ credentials weren’t so highfalutin they amused.

(She might have said something like “Point taken,” in return- I don’t remember.)

In any case, hers was a smart skepticism. Late Night Thoughts was first published in 1980, and I assume its contents were originally published at least a 1-2 years earlier. As such, the science is about forty years old. That is significant- some of the science might stand the test of time, some might not. Although Grace did not know that- i.e. the age of the fact about E. Coli– it authorized the skepticism of readers (and individuals who lie in bed beside readers).

That reality reminds me of an essay titled “Humanities and Science”. In it, Thomas discusses the general tendency to teach sciences “as though they were the same academic collection of cut-and-dried subjects as always, and- here is what has really gone wrong- as though they would always be the same” (pg 147). In other words, many programs teach sciences as if they are complete- like Latin. Of Latin, Thomas says, “One mastered, that is that: Latin is Latin and forever after will be Latin” (pg 148).  Similarly, he says, many educators give the impression, “And biology is precisely biology, a vast array of hard facts to be learned as fundamentals, followed by a reading of the texts.” In contrast, he says, one might study literature- or poetry- any number of ways.

Late Night Thoughts reinforces this theme- the tradition, and importance , of conducting science with a sense wonder about the unknown- throughout its 24 essays.

In “The Problem of Dementia,” Thomas approaches that theme while critiquing aspects of NIH grants- specifically, the 2-3 year duration of most NIH grants awarded. The (short) term of those grants implicitly promote (or, at the time promoted*), he argues, commensurately short research studies. Inversely, one might say NIH implicitly doesn’t promote studies which take longer to perform.

* I’m going to keep writing this essay in a tense which portrays the text as a contemporary one, but remember it is not- some of it is nearly 40 years old.

The 2-3 year term makes relatively shorter studies more attractive. Researchers whose studies take longer- for example, a decade- might find themselves in such a precarious position as Thomas describes in this passage:

By the time you finished your first experiment you would be near the end of your first grant, most likely with nothing to show for it: no annual reports, no publications, nothing to put before a faculty committee charged with considering your eligibility for promotion (pg 123).

As a result, one might say the conditions of NIH grants do not encourage research into such pressing conditions such as senile dementia- if only for indirect professional reasons which hinge on the grants. Referring to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare form of senile dementia, Thomas says, “The climate is wrong for research problems this one.” In that climate, researchers might reasonably find themselves more preoccupied with their salaries and promotions than with solving worthy problems.

“The Artificial Heart” touches on that point. When Thomas wrote the essay, spending on chronic diseases amounted to 10% of the US GDP. Today, that spending is much closer to 20%. Needless to say, economic terms represent only one way- of many ways- to measure the impact of chronic diseases. In this case, they speak to me loudly and clearly, but in a tinny robot’s voice- as one might have answer the question, “Siri, what percentage of GDP does the US spend on chronic diseases?”

As one might expect, Thomas addresses the topic with greater humanity than Siri- but to say that does him little credit. Instead, I’ll say he writes with extraordinary humanity. He conveys the impact of chronic diseases emotionally, with great sympathy and sensitivity, occasionally in terms of human suffering. For example, while describing Alzeimer’s, he says, “It is not in itself lethal, unmercifully” (pg 67), a sentence in which I re-imagine the comma as a point at which Thomas choked up.

Scientific institutions should be calibrated to solve the worst problems suffered by the population, and Thomas seems to say they were not. In various essays, he cites heart disease, mental illness, radiation exposure, and senile dementia as dire problems which require greater focus. Of those problems, he says, “it cannot be promised that scientific research will solve them, but it can be firmly predicted that without research there is no hope at all of preventing or getting rid of them” (pg 67).

Furthermore, Thomas seems to say that scientific institutions restrained man’s sense of wonder. They imposed constraints which distracted (when they did not detract) from his pursuit of inquiry, which heretofore was always a hallmark of science.  Taking steps toward solving such a problem as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease “ought to be irresistible,” Thomas says, but it is “being resisted [because] too few people have had long term support to set out on such new and shifting ground” (pg 126). He continues in this passage, which reads less like a stuffy essay than an inspired keynote speech:

But think of the intellectual reward. To be able to catch hold of, and inspect from all sides, a living, self-replicating form of life that nobody has so far been able to see or detect by chemical methods, and one that may turn out to have its own private mechanisms for producing progeny, novel to earth’s life, should be the chance of a lifetime for any investigator. To have such a biological riddle, sitting there unsolved and neglected, is an embarrassment for biological science.


As I read that passage, his frustration seemed to rise from the page like a vapor. Solving so many problems “ought to be irresistible,” he says, and seems to ask, as if in an auditorium full of his peers, “Why are they not? Can’t we do better?” It’s evident to me, he was gripped by a sense of wonder about the world, a sensibility which he saw as necessary and lacking in the scientific community. In so many cases, he seems to convey a desire to tackle every problem on his own- everything interested him- how could he choose?

Yet, choose is what he does in the essay “Seven Wonders.” He literally chooses seven things which most arouse wonder. His justification for including children among them (or childhood, I suppose) is one of the most beautiful passages in the book (pg 60-61).  But it doesn’t take a literal discussion of “wonders” for Thomas to convey his sense of it. His sense of wonder saturates the book. For example, consider this inspired passage from “Thing Unflattened by Science,” which greatly romanticizes human biology:

Collectively, we are still, in a fundamental sense, a tissue of microbial organisms living off the sun, decorated and ornamented these days by the elaborate architectural structures that the microbes have constructed for their living quarters, including seagrass, foxes, and of course ourselves” (pg 74).*

(I’m a sucker for lofty passages like that one.)

Thomas is more than a late-night scribbler of lofty prose with a scientific bent. The “spirit of inquiry”- which either he channels, or which possesses him- impels him to do more than idly exercise his wonder by writing admiring odes. He refines his admiration of the natural world into something like solidarity, and preaches conservatism and diversity in secular terms. His is sometimes political writing- activism. Consider a passage like this one, ostensibly about ecology, but one which could be applied to biology (immunology), sociology, international or intergalactic relations just as well:

If you become convinced that you exist as a part of something that is itself alive, you are more likely to take pains not to do damage to the other vital parts around you (pg 76).

I’ll end with this passage from the essay “Altruism,” which might best capture what I consider to be the best qualities of this text: the author’s wonderfully conscientious and optimistic tone applied to his diverse expertise. Consider its similarities to the previous passage, even despite its vastly different subject matter: the thread of nuclear war.

I maintain, despite the moment’s evidence against the claim, that we are born and grow up with a fondness for each other, and we have genes for that. We can be talked out of it, for the genetic message is like a distant music and some of us are hard of hearing. Societies are noisy affairs, drowning out the sound of ourselves and our connection. Hard of hearing, we go to war. Stone-deaf, we make thermo-nuclear missiles. Nonetheless, the music is waiting for more listeners (pg 105).


Echoes Down The Corridor (2), by Arthur Miller

I didn’t intend to write about Guilt and Incident at Vichy at such length in previous essay but, given events which occurred last week, it seemed germane, as does writing a separate essay on a remainder of topics from Echoes Down The Corridor which I would like to explore. Following the model of the last essay, in this essay I’ll discuss some of Miller’s lighter essays before allowing any one topic to commandeer it.

I classify the first set of essays I’ll discuss briefly as “anecdotes from abroad.” The three of these I enjoyed most were “Kidnapped,” “The Opera House in Tashkent,” and “The Pure in Heart Need No Lawyers”*.

* The classification “anecdotes from abroad” does the last essay a disservice. Its political and philosophical overtones deserve further consideration than I plan.

In each case, Miller’s writing demonstrates his natural critical tendencies- his thoughtfulness and, even, rich interiority. Those three essays are non-fiction, but the sum qualities of the way Miller writes (his “style”) intimate how easily he could adapt any to fiction- and, importantly, without a diminished quality of authenticity. For example, “Kidnapped” amounts to a suspenseful mash-up of memories from trips to Italy taken twenty years apart. Still, ultimately these stories have little in common. Without racking my brain, only these come to mind: (i) they take place in Italy, and (ii) a sequence of events creates a distrustful dynamic between Miller and an Italian.

In the end, one of two intertwined stories in “Kidnapped” is decidedly extraordinary while the other is, in most ways, ordinary. In one case, Miller finds himself distrustful of notorious mobster Lucky Luciano (Cuba deported him to Italy in 1947); in the other case, Miller worries a taxi driver kidnapped him. In the end, the fact that two such different stories- one extraordinary, one ultimately ordinary- can arouse the same sensations, made me consider the fact one or the other need not be true.

I thought of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer– specifically, Zuckerman’s stubborn notion Amy may in fact be Anne Frank. At some point, it didn’t matter whether Amy was, or wasn’t Anne Frank- the possibility felt real enough. Similarly, at some point in “Kidnapped” it didn’t matter whether Lucky Luciano really stalked Miller, or whether he’d really been kidnapped- at moments, the possibility felt real enough. Whether the events were true of not, Miller told the stories in a way which felt true and authentic.

It surprised me to look back at another essay, “The Opera House in Tashkent,” and see it spans little more than two pages- it took so few words to make a very strong impression. It describes Miller’s ultimately awkward experience visiting a beautiful opera house in Tashkent (then USSR, now Uzbekistan), apparently an “up-and-coming” city at the time. The opera house is beautiful, Miller says, and the production is well-enough done, but only his and one other party attended the production. In the end, he asks whether seeing the opera in that (international) city is much different from seeing the opera in Duluth, Minnesota. Why is it there, he seems to ask without asking, and is the answer significant?

In the last of the three essays I mentioned, “The Pure in Heart Need No Lawyers,” Miller recounts a trip to China in the 1970’s. He stayed with an old friend, Sid Shapiro, whom he grew up with in Brooklyn. Miller describes strained conversations with Sid about what ultimately seems to boil down to totalitarian aspects of China’s ostensibly communist system.

The crux of the essay is China’s judicial system- or lack-thereof, in Miller’s opinion. China had no civil legal code*, hence no lawyers (hence the title of the essay**). How were civil disputes settled in China, Miller wondered, and pestered Sid with that and other questions- “Let’s say a kid smashes a window, a guy beats up his wife.” Sid (with increasing terseness, it seems) answers such questions with relative ease, thanks to in no small part because communism is self-justifying (i.e. totalitarian). Miller describes the perspective as follows: “injustice is not an inclination of humanity but something imposed by unjust social conditions” (pg 176); the corollary is, China’s social conditions are just, so there is little delinquency. What makes the premise “totalitarian” (my word, not Miller’s) is that citizens must collectively believe “social conditions are just”, else the system will collapse.

* According to Miller.

** The title, “The Pure In Heart Need No Lawyers”) comes from Miller’s The Crucible, which takes place in Salem during the witch trials of the 1690s. Puritans forbade lawyers during that time, and a judge dismisses the need for them thusly.

Sid would have Miller believe such things as theft and spousal abuse rarely occur. Of theft, he says,

Theft is the attempt to consume foods without working or producing, so it is antisocialist and therefore a political act…. So political means are the only ones which can cure it. (pg 177)

By “political means” he means, essentially, peer pressure based on political principal. “Peer pressure can weigh fifty tons,” he says. Communism’s ubiquitous emphasis on the collective precludes individual acts of injustice. In cases where such acts occur, establishing a person’s guilt and meting out punishment is not important- reforming that person is important. Maybe, just maybe, the prospect of neighbors and co-workers badgering, or giving the stink-eye to an individual whose child acts delinquently, or whose spouse has a black eye, is a more effective deterrent than expensive, protracted trials.

Miller, a victim of McCarthyism, felt unnerved by what he perceived as culture whose people did not have clearly-defined individual rights. He says,

Every eighteenth- and nineteenth century revolution at least declared the rights of the person to be the centerpiece of society and sought to draw a line beyond which he state could not reach into the individual’s life. Now only the state has rights and powers, and the person, like his property,belongs to the collective, with no recourse or appeal if fools or factions should decide on his ruin. (pg 178)

Miller and Sid dance around the theme. Everything Sid says indicates he buys into China’s systems, and Miller cannot believe Sid, who grew up with him in Brooklyn, could assimilate to his apparent degree. At the same time, he begins to sense Sid needed to assimilate. Sid exemplified the self-justifying quality of China’s communism. If he didn’t assimilate, he knew he might find fifty tons of peer pressure atop him.

I think this awkward sentence best conveys Miller’s general ambivalence about China, and his old friend’s apparent acceptance of it:

Shapiro must surely be disturbed, if only remotely, by a society in effect without law, but a revolutionary cannot display his own uncertainties, let alone allow them to be a part of the discussion. (pg 178)


I began this essay in April 2017, and never finished writing it, for no particular reason. It and the preceding essay cover only roughly half of essays I intended to discuss in this venue. Now, five months have passed and, while the remaining essays still strike me as worthy of additional contemplation, I need to move on. I have stacked many other books beside my couch since March, and plan to write a little something (or a lot) about each of them.

As such, even though I have not really “finished” this essay, I decided I am finished with it 🙁

Still 8/10