Lewis Thomas – Ceti

The following is the ninth essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.


Tau Ceti is a relatively nearby star that suffi-ciently resembles our sun to make its solar system a plausible candidate for the existence of life. We are, it appears, ready to begin getting in touch with Ceti, and with any other interested celestial body in more remote places, out to the edge. CETI is also, by intention, the acronym of the First International Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, held in 1972 in Soviet Armenia under the joint sponsorship of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and the Soviet Academy, which involved eminent physicists and astronomers
from, various countries, most of whom are convinced that the odds for the existence of life elsewhere are very high, with a reasonable probability that there are civilizations, one place or another, with technologic mastery matching or exceeding ours.

On this assumption, the conferees thought it likely that radio astronomy would be the generally accepted mode of interstellar communication, on grounds of speed and economy. They made a formal recommendation that we organize an international cooperative program, with new and immense radio telescopes, to probe the reaches of deep space for electromagnetic signals making sense. Eventually, we would plan to send out messages on our own and receive answers, but at the outset it seems more practical to begin by catching snatches of conversation between others.

So, the highest of all our complex technologies in the hardest of our sciences will soon be engaged, full scale, in what is essentially biologic research– and with some aspects of social science, at that.

The earth has become, just in the last decade, too small a place. We have the feeling of being confined–shut in; it is something like outgrowing a small town in a small county. The views of the dark, pocked surface of Mars, still lifeless to judge from the latest photographs, do not seem to have extended our reach; instead, they bring closer, too close, another
unsatisfactory feature of our local environment. The blue noonday sky, cloudless, has lost its old look of immensity. The word is out that the sky is not limitless; it is finite. It is, in truth, only a kind of local roof, a membrane under which we live, luminous but confusingly refractile when suffused with sunlight; we can sense its concave surface a few miles over our heads. We know that it is tough and thick enough so that when hard objects strike it from the outside they burst into flames.

The color photographs of the earth are more amazing than anything outside: we live inside a blue chamber, a bubble of air blown by ourselves. The other sky beyond, absolutely black and appalling, is wide-open country, irresistible for exploration. Here we go, then. An extraterrestrial embryologist, having a close look at us from time to time, would probably conclude that the morphogenesis of the earth is coming along well, with the beginnings of a nervous system and fair-sized ganglions in the form of cities, and now with specialized, dish-shaped sensory organs, miles across, ready to receive stimuli. He may well wonder, however, how we will go about responding. We are evolving into the situation of a Skinner pigeon in a Skinner box, peering about in all directions, trying to make connections, probing.

When the first word comes in from outer space, finally, we will probably be used to the idea. We can already provide a quite good explanation for the origin of life, here or elsewhere. Given a moist planet with methane, formaldehyde, ammonia, and
some usable minerals, all of which abound, exposed to lightning or ultraviolet irradiation at the right temperature, life might start off almost anywhere. The tricky, unsolved thing is how to get the polymers to arrange in membranes and invent replication. The rest is clear going. If they follow our protocol, it will be anaerobic life at first, then photo- synthesis and the first exhalation of oxygen, then respiring life and the great burst of variation, then speciation, and, finally, some kind of consciousness. It is easy, in the telling.

I suspect that when we have recovered from the first easy acceptance of signs of life from elsewhere, and finished nodding at each other, and finished smiling, we will be in shock. We have had it our way, relatively speaking, being unique all these years, and it will be hard to deal with the thought that the whole, infinitely huge, spinning, clock like apparatus around us is itself animate, and can sprout life whenever the conditions are right. We will respond, beyond doubt, by making connections after the fashion of established life, floating out our filaments, extending pill, but we will end up feeling smaller than ever, as small as a single cell, with a quite new sense of continuity. It will take some getting used to.

The immediate problem, however, is a much more practical, down-to-earth matter, and must be giving insomnia to the CETI participants. Let us assume that there is, indeed, sentient life in one or another part of remote space, and that we will be successful in getting in touch with it. What on earth are we going to talk about? If, as seems likely, it is a hundred or more light years away, there are going to be some very long pauses. The barest amenities, on which we rely for opening conversations – Hello, are you there? from us, followed by Yes, hello, from them–will take two hundred years at least. By the
time we have our party we may have forgotten what we had in mind.

We could begin by gambling on the rightness of our technology and just send out news of ourselves, like a mimeographed Christmas letter, but we would have to choose our items carefully, with durability of meaning in mind. Whatever information we provide must still make sense to us two centuries later, and must still seem important, or the conversation will be an embarrassment to all concerned. In two hundred years it is, as we have found, easy to lose the thread.

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later. And, to do ourselves justice, music would give a fairer picture of what we are really like than some of the other things we might be sending, like Time, say, or a history of the
U.N. or Presidential speeches. We could send out our science, of course, but just think of the wincing at this end when the polite comments arrive two hundred years from now. Whatever we offer as today’s items of liveliest interest are bound to be out of date and irrelevant, maybe even ridiculous. I think we should stick to music.

Perhaps, if the technology can be adapted to it, we should send some paintings. Nothing would better describe what this place is like, to an outsider, than the Cezanne demonstrations that an apple is really part fruit, part earth.

What kinds of questions should we ask? The choices will be hard, and everyone will want his special question first. What are your smallest particles? Did you think yourselves unique? Do you have colds? Have you anything quicker than light? Do you always tell the truth? Do you cry? There is no end to the list. Perhaps we should wait a while, until we are sure we know what we want to know, before we get down to detailed questions. After all, the main question will be the opener: Hello, are you there? If the reply should turn out to be “Yes, hello,” we might want to stop there and think about that, for quite a long time.

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Lewis Thomas – Vibes

The following is the eighth essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.


We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch. One of the odd discoveries made by small boys is that when two pebbles are struck sharply against each other they emit, briefly, a curious smoky odor. The phenomenon fades when the stones are immaculately cleaned, vanishes when they are heated to furnace temperature, and reappears when they are simply touched by the hand again before being struck.

An intelligent dog with a good nose can track a man across open ground by his smell and distinguish that man’s tracks from those of others. More than this, the dog can detect the odor of a light human fingerprint on a glass slide, and he will remember that slide and smell it out from others for as long as six weeks, when the scent fades away. Moreover, this animal can smell the identity of identical twins, and will follow the tracks of one or the other as though they had been made by the same man.

We are marked as self by the chemicals we leave beneath the soles of our shoes, as unmistakably and individually as by the membrane surface antigens detectable in homografts of our tissues.

Other animals are similarly endowed with signaling mechanisms. Columns of ants can smell out the differences between themselves and other ants on their trails. The ants of one species, proceeding jerkily across a path, leave trails that can be followed by their own relatives but not by others. Certain ants, predators, have taken unfair advantage of the system; they are born with an ability to sense the trails of the species they habitually take for slaves, follow their victims to their nests, and release special odorants that throw them into disorganized panic.

Minnows and catfish can recognize each member of their own species by his particular, person- specific odor. It is hard to imagine a solitary, independent, existentialist minnow, recognizable for himself alone; minnows in a school behave like interchangeable, identical parts of an organism. But there it is.

The problem of olfactory sensing shares some of the current puzzles and confusions of immunology, apart from the business of telling self from non-self. A rabbit, it has been calculated, has something like 100 million olfactory receptors. There is a constant and surprisingly rapid turnover of the receptor cells, with new ones emerging from basal cells within a few days. The theories to explain olfaction are as numerous and complex as those for immunologic sensing. It seems likely that the shape of the smelled molecule is what matters most. By and large, odorants are chemically small, Spartan compounds. In a rose garden, a rose is a rose because of geraniol, a 10-carbon compound, and it is the geometric conformation of atoms and their bond angles that determine the unique fragrance. The special vibrations of atoms or groups of atoms within the molecules of odorants, or the vibratory song of the entire molecule, have been made the basis for several theories, with postulated “osmic frequencies” as the source of odor. The geometry of the molecule seems to be more important than the names of the atoms themselves; any set of atoms, if arranged in precisely the same configuration, by whatever chemical name, might smell as sweet. It is not known how the olfactory cells are fired by an odorant. According to one view, a hole is poked in the receptor membrane, launching de- polarization, but other workers believe that the substance may become bound to the cells possessing specific receptors for it and then may just sit there, somehow displaying its signal from a distance, after the fashion of antigens on immune cells. Specific receptor proteins have been proposed, with different olfactory cells carrying specific receptors for different “primary” odors, but no one has yet succeeded in identifying the receptors or naming the “primary” odors.

Training of cells for olfactory sensing appears to be an everyday phenomenon. Repeated exposure of an animal to the same odorant, in small doses, leads to great enhancement of acuity, suggesting the possibility that new receptor sites are added to the cells. It is conceivable that new clones of cells with a particular receptor are stimulated to emerge in the process of training. The guinea pig, that immunoiogically famous animal, can be trained to perceive fantastically small amounts of nitrobenzene by his nose, without the help of Freund’s adjuvants or haptene carriers. Minnows have been trained to recognize phenol, and distinguish it from p-chlorophenol, in concentrations of five parts per billion. Eels have been taught to smell two or three molecules of phenylethyl alcohol. And, of course, eels and salmon must be able to remember by nature, as the phrase goes, the odor of the waters in which they were hatched, so as to sniff their way back from the open sea for spawning.

Electrodes in the olfactory bulbs of salmon will fire when the olfactory epithelium is exposed to water from their spawning grounds, whereas water from other streams causes no response.

We feel somehow inferior and left out of things by all the marvelous sensory technology in the creatures around us. We sometimes try to diminish our sense of loss (or loss of sense) by claiming to ourselves that we have put such primitive mechanisms behind us in our evolution. We like to regard the olfactory bulb as a sort of archeologic find, and we speak of the ancient olfactory parts of the brain as though they were elderly, dotty relatives in need of hobbies.

But we may be better at it than we think. An average man can detect just a few molecules of butyl mercaptan, and most of us can sense the presence of musk in vanishingly small amounts. Steroids are marvelously odorous, emitting varieties of musky, sexy smells. Women are acutely aware of the odor of a synthetic steroid named exaltolide, which most men are unable to detect. All of us are able to smell ants, for which the great word pismire was originally coined.

There may even be odorants that fire off receptors in our olfactory epithelia without our being conscious of smell, including signals exchanged involuntarily between human beings. Wiener has proposed, on intuitive grounds, that defects and misinterpretations in such a communication system may be an unexplored territory for psychiatry. The schizophrenic, he suggests, may have his problems with identity and reality because of flawed perceptions of his own or others signals. And, indeed, there may be something wrong with the apparatus in schizophrenics; they have, it is said, an unfamiliar odor, recently attributed to trans3-methyl-hexanoic acid, in their sweat.

Olfactory receptors for communication between different creatures are crucial for the establishment of symbiotic relations. The crab and anemone recognize each other as partners by molecular configurations, as do the anemones and their symbiotic damsel fish. Similar devices are employed for defense, as with the limpet, which defends itself against starfish predators by averting its mantle and thus precluding a starfish foothold; the limpet senses a special starfish protein, which is, perhaps in the name of fairness, elaborated by all starfish into their environment. The system is evidently an ancient one, long antedating the immunologic sensing of familiar or foreign forms of life by the antibodies on which we now depend so heavily for our separateness. It has recently been learned that the genes for the marking of self by cellular antigens and those for making immunologic responses by antibody formation are closely linked. It is possible that the invention of antibodies evolved from the earlier sensing mechanisms needed for symbiosis, perhaps designed, in part, to keep the latter from getting out of hand.

A very general system of chemical communication between living things of all kinds, plant and animal, has been termed “allelochemics” by Whittaker. Using one signal or another, each form of life announces its proximity to the others around it, setting limits on encroachment or spreading welcome to potential symbionts. The net effect is a coordinated mechanism for the regulation of rates of growth and occupations of territory. It is evidently designed for the homeostasis of the earth.

Jorge Borges, in his recent bestiary of mythical creatures, notes that the idea of round beasts was imagined by many speculative minds, and Johannes Kepler once argued that the earth itself is such a being. In this immense organism, chemical signals might serve the function of global hormones, keeping balance and symmetry in the operation of various interrelated working parts, informing tissues in the vegetation of the Alps about the state of eels in the Sargasso Sea, by long, interminable relays of interconnected messages between all kinds of other creatures.

This is an interesting kind of problem, made to order for computers if they came in sizes big enough to store in nearby galaxies. It is nice to think that there are so many unsolved puzzles ahead for biology, although I wonder whether we will ever find enough graduate students.

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Lewis Thomas – The Technology of Medicine

The following is the seventh essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

The Technology of Medicine

Technology assessment has become a routine exercise for the scientific enterprises on which the country is obliged to spend vast sums for its needs. Brainy committees are continually evaluating the effectiveness and cost of doing various things in space, defense, energy, transportation, and the like, to give advice about prudent investments for the future.

Somehow medicine, for all the $80-odd billion that it is said to cost the nation, has not yet come in for much of this analytical treatment. It seems taken for granted that the technology of medicine simply exists, take it or leave it, and the only major technologic problem which policy-makers are interested in is how to deliver today’s kind of health care, with equity, to all the people.

When, as is bound to happen sooner or later, the analysts get around to the technology of medicine itself, they will have to face the problem of measuring the relative cost and effectiveness of all the things that are done in the management of disease. They make their living at this kind of thing, and I wish them well, but I imagine they will have a bewildering time. For one thing, our methods of managing disease are constantly changing–partly under the influence of new bits of information brought in from all corners of biologic science. At the same time, a great many things are done that are not so closely related to science some not related at all.

In fact, there are three quite different levels of technology in medicine, so unlike each other as to seem altogether different undertakings. Practitioners of medicine and the analysts will be in trouble if they are not kept separate.

I. First of all, there is a large body of what might be termed “nontechnology,” impossible to measure in terms of its capacity to alter either the natural course of disease or its eventual outcome. A great deal of money is spent on this. It is valued highly by the professionals as well as the patients. It consists of what is sometimes called “supportive therapy.” It tides patients over through diseases that are not, by and large, understood. It is what is meant by the phrases “caring for” and “standing by.” It is indispensable. It is not, however, a technology in any real sense, since it does not involve measures directed at the underlying mechanism of disease.

It includes the large part of any good doctor’s time that is taken up with simply providing reassurance, explaining to patients who fear that they have contracted one or another lethal disease that they are, in fact, quite healthy.

It is what physicians used to be engaged in at the bedside of patients with diphtheria, meningitis, poliomyelitis, lobar pneumonia, and all the rest of the infectious diseases that have since come under control. It is what physicians must now do for patients with intractable cancer, severe rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and advanced cirrhosis. One can think of at least twenty major diseases that require this kind of supportive medical care because of the absence of an effective technology. I would include a large amount of what is called mental disease, and most varieties of cancer, in this category.

The cost of this nontechnology is very high, and getting higher all the time. It requires not only a great deal of time but also very hard effort and skill on the part of physicians; only the very best of doctors are good at coping with this kind of defeat. It also involves long periods of hospitalization, lots of nursing, lots of involvement of non-medical professionals in and out of the hospital. It represents, in short, a substantial segment of today’s expenditures for health.

2. At the next level up is a kind of technology best termed “halfway technology.” This represents the kinds of things that must be done after the fact, in efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases whose course one is unable to do very much about. It is a technology designed to make up for disease, or to postpone death.

The outstanding examples in recent years are the transplantation’s of hearts, kidneys, livers, and other organs, and the equally spectacular inventions of artificial organs. In the public mind, this kind of technology has come to seem like the equivalent of the high technologies of the physical sciences. The media tend to present each new procedure as though it represented a breakthrough and therapeutic triumph, instead of the makeshift that it really is.

In fact, this level of technology is, by its nature, at the same time highly sophisticated and profoundly primitive. It is the kind of thing that one must continue to do until there is a genuine understanding of the mechanisms involved in disease. In chronic glomerulonephritis, for example, a much clearer insight will be needed into the events leading to the destruction of glomeruli by the immunologic reactants that now appear to govern this disease, before one will know how to intervene intelligently to prevent the process, or turn it around. But when this level of understanding has been reached, the technology of kidney replacement will not be much needed and should no longer pose the huge problems of logistics, cost, and ethics that it poses today.

An extremely complex and costly technology for the management of coronary heart disease has evolved–involving specialized ambulances and hospital units, all kinds of electronic gadgetry, and whole platoons of new professional personnel–to deal with the end results of coronary thrombosis. Almost everything offered today for the treatment of heart disease is at this level of technology, with the transplanted and artificial hearts as ultimate examples. When enough has been learned to know what really goes wrong in heart disease, one ought to be in a position to figure out ways to prevent or reverse
the process, and when this happens the current elaborate technology will probably be set to one side.

Much of what is done in the treatment of cancer, by surgery, irradiation, and chemotherapy, represents halfway technology, in the sense that these measures are directed at the existence of already established cancer cells, but not at the mechanisms by
which cells become neoplastic.

It is a characteristic of this kind of technology that it costs an enormous amount of money and requires a continuing expansion of hospital facilities. There is no end to the need for new, highly trained people to run the enterprise. And there is really no way out of this, at the present state of knowledge. If the installation of specialized coronary-care units can result in the extension of life for only a few patients with coronary disease (and there is no question that this technology is effective in a few cases), it seems to me an inevitable fact of life that as many of these as can be will be put together, and as much money as can be found will be spent. I do not see that anyone has much choice in this. The only thing that can move medicine away from this level of technology is new information, and the only imaginable source of this in- formation is research.

3. The third type of technology is the kind that is so effective that it seems to attract the least public notice; it has come to be taken for granted. This is the genuinely decisive technology of modern medicine, exemplified best by modern methods for immunization against diphtheria, pertussis, and the childhood virus diseases, and the contemporary use of antibiotics and chemotherapy for bacterial infections. The capacity to deal effectively with syphilis and tuberculosis represents a milestone in human endeavor, even though full use of this potential has not yet been made. And there are, of course, other examples: the treatment of endocrinologic disorders with appropriate hormones, the prevention of hemolytic disease of the newborn, the treatment and prevention of various nutritional disorders, and perhaps just around the corner the management of Parkinsonism and sickle-cell anemia. There are other examples, and everyone will have his favorite candidates for the list, but the truth is that there are nothing like as many as the public has been led to believe.

The point to be made about this kind of technology-the real high technology of medicine–is that it comes as the result of a genuine understanding of disease mechanisms, and when it becomes available, it is relatively inexpensive, and relatively easy to deliver.

Offhand, I cannot think of any important human disease for which medicine possesses the outright capacity to prevent or cure where the cost of the technology is itself a major problem. The price is never as high as the cost of managing the same diseases during the earlier stages of no-technology or halfway technology. If a case of typhoid fever had to be managed today by the best methods of 1935, it would run to a staggering expense. At, say, around fifty days of hospitalization, requiring the most demanding kind of nursing care, with the obsessive concern for details of diet that characterized the therapy of that time,
with daily laboratory monitoring, and, on occasion, surgical intervention for abdominal catastrophe, I should think $10,0000 would be a conservative estimate for the illness, as contrasted with today’s cost of a bottle of chlor-amphenicol and a day or two of fever. The halfway technology that was evolving for poliomyelitis in the early 1950s, just before the emergence of the basic research that made the vaccine possible, provides another illustration of the point. Do you remember Sister Kenny, and the cost of those institutes for rehabilitation, with all those ceremonially applied hot fomentations, and the debates about whether the affected limbs should be totally immobilized or kept in passive motion as frequently as possible, and the masses of statistically tormented data mobilized to support one view or the other? It is the cost of that kind of technology, and its relative effectiveness, that must be compared with the cost and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Pulmonary tuberculosis had similar episodes in its history. There was a sudden enthusiasm for the surgical removal of infected lung tissue in the early 1950s, and elaborate plans were being made for new and expensive installations for major pulmonary surgery in tuberculosis hospitals, and then INH and streptomycin came along and the hospitals themselves were closed up.

It is when physicians are bogged down by their incomplete technologies, by the innumerable things they are obliged to do in medicine when they lack a clear understanding of disease mechanisms, that the deficiencies of the health-care system are
most conspicuous. If I were a policy-maker, interested in saving money for health care over the long haul, I would regard it as an act of high prudence to give high priority to a lot more basic research in biologic science. This is the only way to get the full mileage that biology owes to the science of medicine, even though it seems, as used to be said in the days when the phrase still had some meaning, like asking for the moon.

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Your frustration is valid, but your response isn’t helping you.

Visakan Veerasamy’s answer to: If you could write a 10 note to your younger self, what would you say?

Your frustration is valid, but your response isn’t helping you.

When I was younger, I was very angry with the world, with authority, with institutions. I thought everybody was mind-numbingly stupid, just following orders and instructions, nobody was thinking for themselves, etc. So I rejected it. I rejected school, I rejected my parents, I rejected my teachers. I thought they were all incredibly myopic. 

I don’t think I was entirely wrong about it, but my response threw the baby out with the bathwater. I was so hell-bent on not following anybody’s orders that I never learnt to follow my own. I thought that I could reject ‘the system’, but abstaining from it is really a vote for the status quo. I’ve since learned that most people have difficult lives and are struggling to get by. The world isn’t malicious, it’s just indifferent, and life is a lot harder and complex than most teenagers realize. I recognize that school was a shitty experience for me, but I don’t blame the institution for it anymore. I wasn’t a good fit for it. School tries to do its best with what it can, with limited resources, time, etc.

Teenage Visa, you can’t hide from the world. All the cigarettes and alcohol and rock&roll do is numb you, but it doesn’t make the world go away. What you need to do is to figure out what matters to you, what you care about, and run towards it with all your might. What will surprise you is- when you do that, others will join you. As Steve Jobs said, the world is designed by people no smarter than you are. You can recreate and rebuild. You just need to lose the cynicism and focus on helping others, connecting others. Be the beacon that guides others through the darkness that troubled you. 

And in that is a fulfillment and joy that you don’t even realize that you’re craving, is the answer to the emptiness that you’re misdiagnosing as some sort of deep existential pain.

You don’t heal yourself by rejecting the world, you do it by helping others. And in doing that, you co-create the reality that you wish you were a part of.

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Lewis Thomas – An Earnest Proposal

The following is the sixth essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

An Earnest Proposal

There was a quarter-page advertisement in the London Observer for a computer service that will enmesh your name in an electronic network of fifty thousand other names, sort out your tastes, preferences, habits, and deepest desires and match them up with opposite numbers, and retrieve for you, within a matter of seconds, and for a very small fee, friends. “Already,” it says, “it [the computer] has given very real happiness and lasting relationships to thousands of people, and it can do the same for you!”

Without paying a fee, or filling out a questionnaire, all of us are being linked in similar circuits, for other reasons, by credit bureaus, the census, the tax people, the local police station, or the Army. Sooner or later, if it keeps on, the various networks will begin to touch, fuse, and then, in their coalescence, they will start sorting and retrieving each other, and we will all becomes bits of information on an enormous grid.

I do not worry much about the computers that are wired to help me find a friend among fifty thousand. If errors are made, I can always beg off with a headache. But what of the vaster machines that will be giving instructions to cities, to nations? If they are programmed to regulate human behavior according to today’s view of nature, we are surely in for apocalypse.

The men who run the affairs of nations today are, by and large, our practical men. They have been taught that the world is an arrangement of adversary systems, that force is what counts, aggression is what drives us at the core, only the fittest can survive, and only might can make more might. Thus, it is in observance of nature’s law that we have planted, like perennial tubers, the numberless nameless missiles in the soil of Russia and China and our Midwestern farmlands, with more to come, poised to fly out at a nanosecond’s notice, and meticulously engineered to ignite, in the centers of all our cities, artificial suns. If we let fly enough of them at once, we can even burn out the one-celled green creatures in the sea, and thus turn off the oxygen.

Before such things are done, one hopes that the computers will contain every least bit of relevant information about the way of the world. I should think we might assume this, in fairness to all. Even the nuclear realists, busy as their minds must be with calculations of acceptable levels of megadeath, would not want to overlook anything. They should be willing to wait, for a while anyway.

I have an earnest proposal to make. I suggest that we defer further action until we have acquired a really complete set of information concerning at least one living thing. Then, at least, we shall be able to claim that we know what we are doing. The delay might take a decade; let us say a decade. We and the other nations might set it as an objective of international, collaborative science to achieve a complete understanding of a single form of life. When this is done, and the information programmed into all our computers, I for one would be willing to take my chances.

As to the subject, I propose a simple one, easily solved within ten years. It is the protozoan Myxotricha paradoxa, which inhabits the inner reaches of the digestive tract of Australian termites.

It is not as though we would be starting from scratch. We have a fair amount of information about this creature already–not enough to understand him, of course, but enough to inform us that he means something, perhaps a great deal. At first glance, he appears to be an ordinary, motile protozoan, remarkable chiefly for the speed and directness with which he swims from place to place, engulfing fragments of wood finely chewed by his termite host. In the termite ecosystem, an arrangement of Byzantine complexity, he stands at the epicenter. Without him, the wood, however finely chewed, would never get digested; he supplies the enzymes that break down cellulose to edible carbohydrate, leaving only the non-degradable lignin, which the termite then excretes in geometrically tidy pellets and uses as building blocks for the erection of arches and vaults in the termite nest. Without him there would be no termites, no farms of the fungi that are cultivated by termites and will grow nowhere else, and no conversion of dead trees to loam.

The flagellae that beat in synchrony to propel myxotricha with such directness turn out, on closer scrutiny with the electron microscope, not to be flagellae at all. They are outsiders, in to help with the business: fully formed, perfect spirochetes that have attached themselves at regularly spaced intervals all over the surface of the protozoan.

Then, there are oval organelles, embedded in the surface close to the point of attachment of the spirochetes, and other similar bodies drifting through the cytoplasm with the particles of still undigested wood. These, under high magnification, turn out to be bacteria, living in symbiosis with the spirochetes and the protozoan, probably contributing enzymes that break down the cellulose.

The whole animal, or ecosystem, stuck for the time being halfway along in evolution, appears to be a model for the development of cells like our own. Margulis has summarized the now considerable body of data indicating that the modern nucleated cell was made up, part by part, by the coming together of just such prokaryotic animals. The blue-green algae, the original inventors of photosynthesis, entered partnership with primitive bacterial cells, and became the chloroplasts of plants; their descendants remain as discrete separate animals inside plant cells, with their own DNA and RNA, replicating on their own. Other bacteria with oxidative enzymes in their membranes, makers of ATP, joined up with fermenting bacteria and became the mitochondria of the future; they have since deleted some of their genes but retain personal genomes and can only be regarded as symbionts. Spirochetes, like the ones attached to M. paradoxa, joined up and became the cilia of eukaryotic cells. The centrioles, which hoist the microtubules on which chromosomes are strung for mitosis, are similar separate creatures; when not busy with mitosis, they become the basal bodies to which cilia are attached. And there are others, not yet clearly delineated, whose existence in the cell is indicated by the presence of cytoplasmic genes.

There is an underlying force that drives together the several creatures comprising myxotricha, and then drives the assemblage into union with the termite. If we could understand this tendency, we would catch a glimpse of the process that brought single
separate cells together for the construction of metazoans, culminating in the invention of roses, dolphins, and, of course, ourselves. It might turn out that the same tendency underlies the joining of organisms into communities, communities into ecosystems, and ecosystems into the biosphere. If this is, in fact, the drift of things, the way of the world, we may come to view immune reactions, genes for the chemical marking of self, and perhaps all reflexive responses of aggression and defense as secondary developments in evolution, necessary for the regulation and modulation of symbiosis, not designed to break into the process, only to keep it from getting out of hand.

If it is in the nature of living things to pool resources, to fuse when possible, we would have a new way of accounting for the progressive enrichment and complexity of form in living things.

I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence. At the end of the decade, therefore, I am willing to predict that the feeding in of all the information then available will result, after a few seconds of whirring, in something like the following message, neatly and speedily printed out: “Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.”

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Lewis Thomas – The Music Of This Sphere

The following is the fifth essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

The Music of This Sphere

It is one of our problems that as we become crowded together, the sounds we make to each other, in our increasingly complex communication systems, become more random-sounding, accidental or incidental, and we have trouble selecting meaningful signals out of the noise. One reason is, of course, that we do not seem able to restrict our communication to information-bearing, relevant signals. Given any new technology for transmitting information, we seem bound to use it for great quantities of small talk. We are only saved by music from being overwhelmed by nonsense.

It is a marginal comfort to know that the relatively new science of bioacoustics must deal with similar problems in the sounds made by other animals to each other. No matter what sound- making device is placed at their disposal, creatures in general do a great deal of gabbling, and it requires long patience and observation to edit out the parts lacking syntax and sense. Light social conversation, designed to keep the party going, prevails. Nature abhors a long silence.

Somewhere, underlying all the other signals, is a continual music. Termites make percussive sounds to each other by beating their heads against the floor in the dark, resonating corridors of their nests. The sound has been described as resembling, to
the human ear, sand falling on paper, but spectre-graphic analysis of sound records has recently revealed a high degree of organization in the drumming; the beats occur in regular, rhythmic phrases, differing in duration, like notes for a tympani section.

From time to time, certain termites make a convulsive movement of their mandibles to produce a loud, high-pitched clicking sound, audible ten meters off. So much effort goes into this one note that it must have urgent meaning, at least to the sender. He cannot make it without such a wrench that he is flung one or two centimeters into the air by the recoil.

There is obvious hazard in trying to assign a particular meaning to this special kind of sound, and problems like this exist throughout the field of bio-acoustics. One can imagine a woolly-minded Visitor from Outer Space, interested in human beings, discerning on his spectrograph the click of that golf ball on the surface of the moon, and trying to account for it as a call of warning (unlikely), a signal of mating (out of the question), or an announcement of territory (could be).

Bats are obliged to make sounds almost ceaselessly, to sense, by sonar, all the objects in their surroundings. They can spot with accuracy, on the wing, small insects, and they will home onto things they like with infallibility and speed. With such a system for the equivalent of glancing around, they must live in a world of ultrasonic bat- sound, most of it with an industrial, machinery sound. Still, they communicate with each other as well, by clicks and high-pitched greetings. Moreover, they have been heard to produce, while hanging at rest upside down in the depths of woods, strange, solitary, and lovely bell-like notes.

Almost anything that an animal can employ to make a sound is put to use. Drumming, created by beating the feet, is used by prairie hens, rabbits, and mice; the head is banged by woodpeckers and certain other birds; the males of deathwatch beetles make a rapid ticking sound by percussion of a protuberance on the abdomen against the ground; a faint but audible ticking is made by the tiny beetle Lepinottls inquilintls, which is less than two millimeters in length. Fish make sounds by clicking their teeth, blowing air, and drumming with special muscles against tuned inflated air bladders. Solid structures are set to vibrating by toothed bows in crustaceans and insects. The proboscis of the death’s-head hawk moth is used as a kind of reed instrument, blown through to make high- pitched, reedy notes.

Gorillas beat their chests for certain kinds of discourse. Animals with loose skeletons rattle them, or, like rattlesnakes, get sounds from externally placed structures. Turtles, alligators, crocodiles, and even snakes make various more or less vocal sounds. Leeches have been heard to tap rhythmically on leaves, engaging the attention of other leeches, which tap back, in synchrony. Even earthworms make sounds, faint staccato notes in regular clusters. Toads sing to each other, and their friends sing back in antiphony.

Birdsong has been so much analyzed for its content of business communication that there seems little time left for music, but it is there. Behind the glossaries of warning calls, alarms, mating messages, pronouncements of territory, calls for recruitment, and demands for dispersal, there is redundant, elegant sound that is unaccountable as part of the working day. The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative, liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strongest impression that he does this for his own pleasure. Some of the time he seems to be practicing like a virtuoso in his apartment. He starts a run, reaches a midpoint in the second bar where there should be a set of complex harmonics, stops, and goes back to begin over, dissatisfed. Sometimes he changes his notation so conspicuously that he seems to be improvising sets of variations. It is a meditative, questioning kind of music, and I cannot believe that he is simply saying, “thrush here.”

The robin sings flexible songs, containing a variety of motifs that he rearranges to his liking; the notes in each motif constitute the syntax, and the possibilities of variation produce a considerable repertoire. The meadow lark, with three hundred notes to work with, arranges these in phrases of three to six notes and elaborates fifty types of song. The nightingale has twenty-four basic songs, but gains wild variety by varying the internal arrangement of phrases and the length of pauses. The chaffinch listens to other chaffinches, and incorporates into his memory snatches of their songs.

The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.

The individual parts played by other instrumentalists–crickets or earthworms, for instance– may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.

There are, of course, other ways to account for the songs of whales. They might be simple, down- to-earth statements about navigation, or sources of krill, or limits of territory. But the proof is not in, and until it is shown that these long, convoluted, insistent melodies, repeated by different singers with ornamentations of their own, are the means of sending through several hundred miles of undersea such ordinary information as “whale here,” I shall believe otherwise. Now and again, in the intervals between songs, the whales have been seen to breach, leaping clear out of the sea and landing on their backs, awash in the turbulence of their beating flippers. Perhaps they are pleased by the way the piece went, or perhaps it is celebration at hearing one’s own song returning after circumnavigation; whatever, it has the look of jubilation.

I suppose that my extraterrestrial Visitor might puzzle over my records in much the same way, on first listening. The 14th Quartet might, for him, be a communication announcing, “Beethoven here,” answered, after passage through an undersea of time and submerged currents of human thought, by another long signal a century later, “Bartok here.”

If, as I believe, the urge to make a kind of music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, there ought to be an explanation for it. Having none at hand, I am free to make one up. The rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else–an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate, random matter in chaos into the improbable, ordered dance of living forms. Morowitz has presented the case, in thermodynamic terms, for the hypothesis that a steady flow of energy from the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space, by way of the earth, is mathematically destined to cause the organization of matter into an increasingly ordered state. The resulting balancing act involves a ceaseless clustering of bonded atoms into molecules of higher and higher complexity, and the emergence of cycles
for the storage and release of energy. In a non-equilibrium steady state, which is postulated, the solar energy would not just flow to the earth and radiate away; it is thermodynamically inevitable that it must rearrange matter into symmetry, away from
probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation. In such a system, the outcome is a chancy kind of order, always on the verge of descending into chaos, held taut against probability by the unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.

If there were to be sounds to represent this process, they would have the arrangement of the Brandenburg Concertos for my ear, but I am open to wonder whether the same events are recalled by the rhythms of insects, the long, pulsing runs of birdsong, the descants of whales, the modulated vibrations of a million locusts in migration, the tympani of gorilla breasts, termite heads, drumfish bladders. A “grand canonical ensemble” is, oddly enough, the proper term for a quantitative model system in thermodynamics, borrowed from music by way of mathematics. Borrowed back again, provided with notation, it would do for what I have in mind.

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Lewis Thomas – A Fear Of Pheromones

The following is the fourth essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

A Fear of Pheromones

What are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones? What on earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything? We can send notes, telephone, whisper cryptic invitations, announce the giving of parties, even bounce words off the moon and make them carom around the planets. Why a gas, or droplets of moisture made to be deposited on fence posts? Comfort has recently reviewed the reasons for believing that we are, in fact, in possession of an- atomic structures for which there is no rational explanation except as sources of pheromones-tufts of hair, strategically located apocrine glands, unaccountable areas of moisture. We even have folds of skin here and there designed for the controlled nurture of bacteria, and it is known that certain microbes eke out a living, like eighteenth-century musicians, producing chemical signals by ornamenting the products of their hosts.

Most of the known pheromones are small, simple molecules, active in extremely small concentrations. Eight or ten carbon atoms in a chain are all that are needed to generate precise, unequivocal directions about all kinds of matters–when and where to cluster in crowds, when to disperse, how to behave to the opposite sex, how to ascertain what is the opposite sex, how to organize members of a society in the proper ranking orders of dominance, how to mark our exact boundaries of real estate, and how to establish that one is, beyond argument, one’s self. Trails can be laid and followed, antagonists frightened and confused, friends attracted and enchanted.

The messages are urgent, but they may arrive, for all we know, in a fragrance of ambiguity. “At home, 4 p.m. today,” says the female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will tremble the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor. But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: “Bless my soul, what have we here!”

It has been soberly calculated that if a single female moth were to release all the bombykol in her sac in a single spray, all at once, she could theoretically attract a trillion males in the instant. This is, of course, not done.

Fish make use of chemical signals for the identification of individual members of a species, and also for the announcement of changes in the status of certain individuals. A catfish that has had a career as a local leader smells one way, but as soon as he is displaced in an administrative reorganization, he smells differently, and everyone recognizes the loss of standing. A bullhead can immediately identify the water in which a recent adversary has been swimming, and he can distinguish between this fish and all others in the school.

There is some preliminary, still fragmentary evidence for important pheromones in primates. Short- chain aliphatic compounds are elaborated by female monkeys in response to estradiol, and these are of consuming interest to the males. Whether there are other sorts of social communication by pheromones among primates is not known.

The possibility that human beings are involved in this sort of thing has not attracted much attention until recently. It is still too early to say how it will come out. Perhaps we have inherited only vestiges of the organs needed, only antique and archaic traces of the fragrance, and the memory may be forever gone. We may remain safe from this new challenge to our technology, and, while the twentieth century continues to run out in con- centric circles down the drain, we may be able to keep our attention concentrated on how to get energy straight from the sun.

But there are just the slightest suggestions, hints of what may be ahead. Last year it was observed that young women living at close quarters in dormitories tended to undergo spontaneous synchronization of their menstrual cycles. A paper in Nature reported the personal experience of an anonymous, quantitatively minded British scientist who lived for long stretches in isolation on an offshore island, and discovered, by taking the dry weight of the hairs trapped by his electric razor every day, that his beard grew much more rapidly each time he returned to the mainland and encountered girls. Schizophrenic patients are reported to have a special odor to their sweat, traced to trans-3-methyl- hexanoic acid.

The mind, already jelled by the advances in modern communication so that further boggling is impossible, twitches. One can imagine whole new industries springing up to create new perfumes (“A Scientific Combination of Primer and Releaser”), and other, larger corporations raising new turrets with names alight at their tops on the Jersey flats, for the production of phenolic, anesthetic, possibly bright green sprays to cover, mask, or suppress all pheromones (“Don’t Let On”). Gas chromatography of air samples might reveal blips of difference between substances released over a Glasgow football match, a committee meeting on academic promotions, and a summer beach on Saturday afternoon, all highly important. One can even imagine agitated conferences in the Pentagon, new agreements in Geneva.

It is claimed that a well-trained tracking hound can follow with accuracy the trail of a man in shoes, across open ground marked by the footsteps of any number of other people, provided the dog is given an item of the man’s clothing to smell beforehand. If one had to think up an R&D program for a National Institute of Human Fragrance (to be created by combining the budgets of the FDA and FCC), this would be a good problem to start with. It might also provide the kind of secondary, spin- off items of science that we like to see in federally supported research. If it is true, as the novels say, that an intelligent dog can tell the difference between one human being and any other by detecting differences in their scents, an explanation might be geometric differences in to-carbon molecules, or perhaps differences in the relative concentrations of several pheromones in a medley. If this is a fact, it should be of interest to the immunologic community, which has long since staked out claims on the mechanisms involved in the discrimination between self and non-self. Perhaps the fantastically sensitive and precise immunologic mechanisms for the detection of small molecules such as haptenes represent another way of sensing the same markers. Man’s best friend might be used to sniff out histocompatible donors. And so forth. If we could just succeed in maintaining the research activity at this level, perhaps diverting everyone’s attention from all other aspects by releasing large quantities of money, we might be able to stay out of trouble.

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