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).