"The toughest membrane imaginable"

This was an extraordinary find while I was sifting randomly through the dusty boxes of a booksale outlet store. The price tag was shocking as well; it only cost 10 pesos. I enjoy reading anthologies, whether they're short stories in fiction or non-fiction essays. Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell falls in the latter category. The book is composed of 29 of the most succinct but unforgettable essays on subjects not just narrowed down to scientific fields but also about their ongoing connection to more humanistic fields of knowledge and endeavor such as mass communications and music. Thomas' aim is to show readers that everything in Earth is connected even if such connections are microscopic and neglected by the human populous.

Recommending this book to a general audience may seem like a strange thing, especially since most people would view this as an academic piece of literature that not everyone can enjoy in passing. True, Thomas's work belongs to classrooms and for students who actively pursue science as a vocation but I believe The Lives of a Cell has accomplished a surprising feat: anyone can enjoy the essays he had composed, and he composed them with such delicacy, craft and mastery, successfully employing a literary voice to deliver his pieces. The result is worth at least a day of your life (and I've finished this while on a bus ride during a field trip). The essays themselves are harmonious; Thomas not only has a great grasp on the fundamentals and implications of biology as a scientific field but also as a philosophy which we can look at nature and man's place in it with a renewed understanding. He definitely has an ear for music while he writes the essays; his sentences are so melodious, often resonating beyond our scholarly comprehension.

Here is a sample of his first essay that immediately gripped me by the throat:

"We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature."

There is nothing I could say that could offer you any kind of consolation if you ever pick up this book except that it's a transformative experience you shouldn't miss out on. You can view The Lives of a Cell as a scientist's journal--but don't expect it to be stifling or dreary at all. Thomas' musings and observations are quite whimsical and heartfelt. Trust him while you read his work and he may open your mind with things a lot of us are quick to overlook in our lives.

* A collection of sublime and compelling examinations on man and nature, written with deftness and childlike curiosity

Since I don't believe this book is available in print anymore unless in bargain sales, I decided to research it online and was happy to find a PDF copy which you can read HERE


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