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Who said: “Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed.”
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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index T > Lewis Thomas Quotes

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Lewis Thomas
(25 Nov 1913 - 3 Dec 1993)

American physician and author best known for his reflective essays on a wide range of topics in biology.


Science Quotes by Lewis Thomas (60 quotes)

>> Click for Lewis Thomas Quotes on | DNA | Error | Gene | Knowledge | Language | Learning | Life | Mind | Nature | New | Science | Species | Truth | Universe |

...the life of the planet began the long, slow process of modulating and regulating the physical conditions of the planet. The oxygen in today's atmosphere is almost entirely the result of photosynthetic living, which had its start with the appearance of blue-green algae among the microorganisms.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 74.
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A poet is, after all, a sort of scientist, but engaged in a qualitative science in which nothing is measurable. He lives with data that cannot be numbered, and his experiments can be done only once. The information in a poem is, by definition, not reproducible. ... He becomes an equivalent of scientist, in the act of examining and sorting the things popping in [to his head], finding the marks of remote similarity, points of distant relationship, tiny irregularities that indicate that this one is really the same as that one over there only more important. Gauging the fit, he can meticulously place pieces of the universe together, in geometric configurations that are as beautiful and balanced as crystals.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1995), 107.
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All of today’s DNA, strung through all the cells of the earth, is simply an extension and elaboration of [the] first molecule.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 27.
Science quotes on:  |  Cell (130)  |  DNA (67)  |  Earth (582)  |  Elaboration (6)  |  Extension (20)  |  First (214)  |  Molecule (127)  |  Simplicity (128)  |  String (18)  |  Today (100)

Animals have genes for altruism, and those genes have been selected in the evolution of many creatures because of the advantage they confer for the continuing survival of the species.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony(1984), 143.
Science quotes on:  |  Advantage (48)  |  Altruism (7)  |  Animal (325)  |  Continuation (19)  |  Creature (142)  |  Evolution (500)  |  Gene (70)  |  Selection (28)  |  Species (198)  |  Survival (52)

Animals, even plants, lie to each other all the time, and we could restrict the research to them, putting off the real truth about ourselves for the several centuries we need to catch our breath. What is it that enables certain flowers to resemble nubile insects, or opossums to play dead, or female fireflies to change the code of their flashes in order to attract, and then eat, males of a different species?
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 131.
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Ants are more like the parts of an animal than entities on their own. They are mobile cells, circulating through a dense connective tissue of other ants in a matrix of twigs. The circuits are so intimately interwoven that the anthill meets all the essential criteria of an organism.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Antaeus in Manhattan', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 63.
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Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves…. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.
— Lewis Thomas
(1974) In 'On Societies as Organisms', A Long Line of Cells: Collected Essays (1990), 10.
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As evolutionary time is measured, we have only just turned up and have hardly had time to catch breath, still marveling at our thumbs, still learning to use the brand-new gift of language. Being so young, we can be excused all sorts of folly and can permit ourselves the hope that someday, as a species, we will begin to grow up.
— Lewis Thomas
From 'Introduction' written by Lewis Thomas for Horace Freeland Judson, The Search for Solutions (1980, 1987), xvii.
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Cells are required to stick precisely to the point. Any ambiguity, any tendency to wander from the matter at hand, will introduce grave hazards for the cells, and even more for the host in which they live. … There is a theory that the process of aging may be due to the cumulative effect of imprecision, a gradual degrading of information. It is not a system that allows for deviating.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Information', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 110-111.
Science quotes on:  |  Aging (5)  |  Ambiguity (13)  |  Cell (130)  |  Cumulative (9)  |  Degrade (5)  |  Effect (140)  |  Gradual (19)  |  Hazard (12)  |  Host (10)  |  Imprecision (2)  |  Information (106)

Chemical waste products are the droppings of science.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980).
Science quotes on:  |  Chemical (73)  |  Dropping (3)  |  Product (74)  |  Science (1741)  |  Waste (61)

Good applied science in medicine, as in physics, requires a high degree of certainty about the basic facts at hand, and especially about their meaning, and we have not yet reached this point for most of medicine.
— Lewis Thomas
The Medusa and the Snail (1979), 143.
Science quotes on:  |  Applied Science (28)  |  Fact (628)  |  Medicine (326)  |  Physics (304)

I am entitled to say, if I like, that awareness exists in all the individual creatures on the planet—worms, sea urchins, gnats, whales, subhuman primates, superprimate humans, the lot. I can say this because we do not know what we are talking about: consciousness is so much a total mystery for our own species that we cannot begin to guess about its existence in others.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 223.
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I can say, if I like, that social insects behave like the working parts of an immense central nervous system: the termite colony is an enormous brain on millions of legs; the individual termite is a mobile neurone.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 224. Note: Spelling “neurone&rdwuo; [sic].
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I can think of a few microorganisms, possibly the tubercle bacillus, the syphilis spirochete, the malarial parasite, and a few others, that have a selective advantage in their ability to infect human beings, but there is nothing to be gained, in an evolutionary sense, by the capacity to cause illness or death. Pathogenicity may be something of a disadvantage for most microbes…
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Germs', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 90.
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I cannot think of a single field in biology or medicine in which we can claim genuine understanding, and it seems to me the more we learn about living creatures, especially ourselves, the stranger life becomes.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980).
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I do not understand modern physics at all, but my colleagues who know a lot about the physics of very small things, like the particles in atoms, or very large things, like the universe, seem to be running into one queerness after another, from puzzle to puzzle.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980).
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If we have learned anything at all in this century, it is that all new technologies will be put to use, sooner or later, for better or worse, as it is in our nature to do
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Autonomy', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 79.
Science quotes on:  |  Century (103)  |  Human Nature (56)  |  Learn (193)  |  New (380)  |  Sooner Or Later (2)  |  Technology (205)

In the same sense that our judicial system presumes us to be innocent until proven guilty, a medical care system may work best if it starts with the presumption that most people are healthy. Left to themselves, computers may try to do it in the opposite way, taking it as given that some sort of direct, continual, professional intervention is required all the time, in order to maintain the health of each citizen, and we will end up spending all our money on nothing but this.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Aspects of Biomedical Science Policy', The New England Journal of Medicine (12 Oct 1972), 4. Also published as Occasional Paper of the Institute of Medicine.
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Inexact method of observation, as I believe, is one flaw in clinical pathology to-day. Prematurity of conclusion is another, and in part follows from the first; but in chief part an unusual craving and veneration for hypothesis, which besets the minds of most medical men, is responsible. Except in those sciences which deal with the intangible or with events of long past ages, no treatises are to be found in which hypothesis figures as it does in medical writings. The purity of a science is to be judged by the paucity of its recorded hypotheses. Hypothesis has its right place, it forms a working basis; but it is an acknowledged makeshift, and, at the best, of purpose unaccomplished. Hypothesis is the heart which no man with right purpose wears willingly upon his sleeve. He who vaunts his lady love, ere yet she is won, is apt to display himself as frivolous or his lady a wanton.
— Lewis Thomas
The Mechanism and Graphic Registration of the Heart Beat (1920), vii.
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It hurts the spirit, somehow, to read the word environments, when the plural means that there are so many alternatives there to be sorted through, as in a market, and voted on.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1984), 121.
Science quotes on:  |  Environment (152)

It is in our genes to understand the universe if we can, to keep trying even if we cannot, and to be enchanted by the act of learning all the way.
— Lewis Thomas
Science quotes on:  |  Act (86)  |  Cannot (8)  |  Enchantment (8)  |  Gene (70)  |  Learning (174)  |  Try (118)  |  Understanding (322)  |  Universe (615)  |  Way (36)

It is not a simple life to be a single cell, although I have no right to say so, having been a single cell so long ago myself that I have no memory at all of that stage in my life.
— Lewis Thomas
In A Long Line of Cells: Collected Essays (1990), 244.
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It is not so bad being ignorant if you are totally ignorant; the hard thing is knowing in some detail the reality of ignorance...
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 74.
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It is the very strangeness of nature that makes science engrossing. That ought to be at the center of science teaching. There are more than seven-times-seven types of ambiguity in science, awaiting analysis. The poetry of Wallace Stevens is crystal-clear alongside the genetic code.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 209.
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It is when physicians are bogged down … 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.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'The Technology of Medicine', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 41-42.
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Language is simply alive, like an organism. We all tell each other this, in fact, when we speak of living languages, and I think we mean something more than an abstract metaphor. We mean alive. Words are the cells of language, moving the great body, on legs. Language grows and evolves, leaving fossils behind. The individual words are like different species of animals. Mutations occur. Words fuse, and then mate. Hybrid words and wild varieties or compound words are the progeny. Some mixed words are dominated by one parent while the other is recessive. The way a word is used this year is its phenotype, but it has deeply immutable meanings, often hidden, which is its genotype.... The separate languages of the Indo-European family were at one time, perhaps five thousand years ago, maybe much longer, a single language. The separation of the speakers by migrations had effects on language comparable to the speciation observed by Darwin on various islands of the Galapagos. Languages became different species, retaining enough resemblance to an original ancestor so that the family resemblance can still be seen.
— Lewis Thomas
in 'Living Language,' The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, (1974, 1984), 106.
Science quotes on:  |  Language (161)  |  Word (235)

Long lives are not necessarily pleasurable…. We will be lucky if we can postpone the search for new technologies for a while, until we have discovered some satisfactory things to do with the extra time. Something will surely have to be found to take the place of sitting on the porch re-examining one’s watch.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'The Long Habit', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 57.
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Mistakes are at the very base of human thought feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail (1979), 37.
Science quotes on:  |  Error (234)

Montaigne simply turns his mind loose and writes whatever he feels like writing. Mostly, he wants to say that reason is not a special, unique gift of human beings, marking us off from the rest of nature.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 147.
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Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.
— Lewis Thomas
The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1980), 154.
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Science is founded on uncertainty. Each time we learn something new and surprising, the astonishment comes with the realization that we were wrong before.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980), 58.
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Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1995), 129.
Science quotes on:  |  Language (161)

Statistically the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you would think the mere fact of existence would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Probability and Possibility', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 165.
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The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connection.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1984), 42.
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The body of science is not, as it is sometimes thought, a huge coherent mass of facts, neatly arranged in sequence, each one attached to the next by a logical string. In truth, whenever we discover a new fact it involves the elimination of old ones. We are always, as it turns out, fundamentally in error.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980)
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The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 28.
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The central task of science is to arrive, stage by stage, at a clearer comprehension of nature, but this does not mean, as it is sometimes claimed to mean, a search for mastery over nature.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 153.
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The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.
— Lewis Thomas
…...
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The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency. We need all the fallibility we can get. Most of all, we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds. That way we can keep open all the options, as we have in the past.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Computers', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 132-133.
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The great secret, known to internists…, but still hidden from the general public, is that most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Aspects of Biomedical Science Policy', The New England Journal of Medicine (12 Oct 1972), 3. Also published as Occasional Paper of the Institute of Medicine.
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The greatest achievements in the science of this [twentieth] century are themselves the sources of more puzzlement than human beings have ever experienced. Indeed, it is likely that the twentieth century will be looked back at as the time when science provided the first close glimpse of the profundity of human ignorance. We have not reached solutions; we have only begun to discover how to ask questions.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980).
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The greatest single achievement of nature to date was surely the invention of the molecule DNA.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 27.
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The most intensely social animals can only adapt to group behavior. Bees and ants have no option when isolated, except to die. There is really no such creature as a single individual; he has no more life of his own than a cast off cell marooned from the surface of your skin.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Lives of a Cell (1974), 63.
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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.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'The Music of This Sphere', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 25.
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The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature. ... It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.
— Lewis Thomas
In Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 58.
Science quotes on:  |  Truth (764)

The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature. Indeed, I regard this as the major discovery of the past hundred years of biology. It is, in its way, an illuminating piece of news. … It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.
— Lewis Thomas
Essay, 'The Hazards of Science', collected in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), 73.
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The overwhelming astonishment, the queerest structure we know about so far in the whole universe, the greatest of all cosmological scientific puzzles, confounding all our efforts to comprehend it, is the earth.
— Lewis Thomas
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony(1984), 16.
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The uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing than its diversity, is accountable by the high probability that we derived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled. It is from the progeny of this parent cell that we take our looks; we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance.
— Lewis Thomas
The Lives of a Cell (1974), 5.
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This is the element that distinguishes applied science from basic. Surprise is what makes the difference. When you are organized to apply knowledge, set up targets, produce a usable product, you require a high degree of certainty from the outset. All the facts on which you base protocols must be reasonably hard facts with unambiguous meaning. The challenge is to plan the work and organize the workers so that it will come out precisely as predicted. For this, you need centralized authority, elaborately detailed time schedules, and some sort of reward system based on speed and perfection. But most of all you need the intelligible basic facts to begin with, and these must come from basic research. There is no other source. In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn't likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.
— Lewis Thomas
The Planning of Science, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, (1974) .
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We are a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life. We have language… We have affection. We have genes for usefulness, and usefulness is about as close to a “common goal” for all of nature as I can guess at.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1995), 16-17.
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We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of the selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 39.
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We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1995), 38.
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We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1995), 17.
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We have come a long way on that old molecule [DNA].
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 28.
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We have dominated and overruled nature, and from now on the earth is ours, a kitchen garden until we learn to make our own chlorophyll and float it out in the sun inside plastic mebranes. We will build Scarsdale on Mount Everest.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 108.
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We owe our lives to the sun... How is it, then, that we feel no gratitude?
— Lewis Thomas
Earth Ethics (Summer 1990).
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We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way. Not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.
— Lewis Thomas
Essay, 'On Committees' collected in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974, 1979), 120.
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When the earth came alive it began constructing its own membrane, for the general purpose of editing the sun.
— Lewis Thomas
In The Lives of a Cell (1974), 171.
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[Music as a] 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 … to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.
— Lewis Thomas
In 'Ceti', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 53.
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[We are] a fragile species, still new to the earth, … here only a few moments as evolutionary time is measured, … in real danger at the moment of leaving behind only a thin layer of of our fossils, radioactive at that.
— Lewis Thomas
The Fragile Species (1992, 1996), 25.
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See also:
  • 25 Nov - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Thomas's birth.
  • The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Lewis Thomas.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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