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Desert Island Text

Lewis Thomas is a man of whom our editor would approve. His writings more than amply show that "he thinks the unthinkable, questions the unquestionable and is in addition thoroughly interesting. Moreover he has a Welsh background (admittedly several generations distant - see Bandolier #10 ).

Lewis Thomas would be my chosen companion on the desert island to which Bandolier has consigned me. To explain why, I don't think I can do better than pass on the Washington Post's advice on Thomas' first book, "The Lives of a Cell" - "read this book....ponder it, read it again, for it is an unlikely, indeed a rare work, an ode to biology, luminous in style and bursting with information, a celebration of, and a cerebration on life, and intensely interesting". Time simply described Thomas as "quite possibly the best essayist on science now working anywhere in the world".

The attributes that would be so valuable on the island are the originality of Thomas' ideas, his unexpected interpretations of apparently ordinary phenomena and the amazing breadth of his writing. As a research scientist Lewis Thomas made an impact by suggesting that an immunosurveillance mechanism protects us from the possible ravages of mutant cells, an idea later championed by Macfarlane Burnett. I have always had a soft spot for the concept of immunosurveillance, since like the Emperor's new clothes it neatly explains the absence of something that has never been shown to exist! Thomas also proposed that viruses have played a major rôle in the evolution of species by their ability to move pieces of DNA from one individual or species to another.

As physician, medical educator and administrator Thomas is well qualified for the rôle of elder statesman and philosopher. As an essayist he has a knack of delighting his readers, surprising them and then perhaps humbling or deflating them. One is never sure what is coming next even though you think you know the subject. The titles of the essays are an entertainment in themselves and they encourage speculation on what might be forthcoming: the corner of the eye; the attic of the brain; the scrambler in the mind; on etymons and hybrids; on transcendental metaworry; the youngest and brightest thing around; late night thoughts on Mahler's ninth symphony; notes on punctuation (oh dear!); the wonderful mistake (if DNA had replicated perfectly there might be no evolution - but what about the viruses?). There is something here for everyone and I challenge readers not to be stimulated by Lewis Thomas' writing.

There seems to be a developing tendency amongst contributors to this column to stretch the (imaginary) rules and I propose to extend this by imagining a 'collected works' of Thomas. After all he has only (to my knowledge) published five slim volumes of essays and one autobiographical volume, apart, of course, from his scientific and medical papers. These could easily be contained within one cover. This volume would contain something over one hundred essays. The ration could be one a day or one a week. For how long has Bandolier abandoned me? Is a rescue planned in a few months (one a day); a couple of years (one a week) or never (the essays can stand re-reading many times).
Dr Eric Sidebottom
  • Lives of a cell. 1974, Allen Lane
  • The Medusa and the Snail. 1980, Allen Lane
  • The Youngest Science. 1983, Oxford University Press
  • Late Night Thoughts. 1984, Oxford University Press
  • The Fragile Species. 1993, Collier (Macmillan)

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