search  current discussion  categories  wanted/for sale - wanted 

advice and lewis thomas (long)

updated sat 29 nov 97


shelford on fri 28 nov 97

I've been enchanted with the various responses since I've been back, to the
"advice" thread, and would like to throw in a few quotes before the subject
fades out.
It has struck me many times that the ceaseless, exuberant exchange of
information on this list is a lot like what one of my favourite writers of
all time, Lewis Thomas, so frequently observed and delighted in, in the
scientific community. In writing about the Marine Biological Laboratory at
Woods Hole, he said:

"You might begin at the local beach, which functions as a sort of ganglion...
"On weekends, in hot midsummer, you can see how the governing mechanisms
work. It is so crowded that one must pick one's way to find a hunching
place, but there is always a lot of standing up anyway; biologists seem to
prefer standing on beaches, talking at each other, gesturing to indicate the
way things are assembled, bending down to draw diagrams in the sand. By the
end of the day, the sand is crisscrossed with a mesh of ordinates,
abscissas, curves to account for everything in nature.
"You can hear the sound from the beach at a distance, before you see the
people. It is that most extraordinary noise, half-shout, half-song, made by
confluent, simultaneously raised human voices, explaining things to each other.
"You hear a similar sound at the close of the Friday Evening Lecture, the
MBL's weekly grand occasion... As the audience flows out of the auditorium,
there is the same jubilant descant, the great sound of crowded people
explaining things to each other as fast as their minds will work. You
cannot make out individual words in the mass, exept that the recurrent
phrase, "But look --" keeps bobbing above the surf of language.
"Not many insitutions can produce this spontaneous music at will, summer
after summer, year after year. It takes special gift... Perhaps this is an
aspect of the way we build language after all. The scale is very small, and
it is not at all clear how it works, but it makes a nice thought for a time
when we can't seem to get anything straight or do anything right."*

And another bit from the same book:

"Termites are ... extraordinary in the way they seem to accumulate
intelligence as they gather together. Two or three termites in a chamber
will begin to pick up pellets and move them from place to place, but nothing
comes of it; nothing is built. As more join in, they seem to reach a
critical mass, a quorum, and the thinking begins. They place pellets atop
pellets, then throw up columns and beautiful, curving, symmetrical arches,
and the crystalline architecture of vaulted chambers is created. It is not
known how they communicate with each other, how the chains of termites
building one column know when to turn toward the crew on the adjacent
column, or how, when the time comes, they manage the flawless joining of the
arches. The stimuli that set them off at the outset, building collectively
instead of shifting things about, may be the pheromones released when they
reach committee size. They react as if alarmed. They become agitated,
excited, and then they begin working, like artists."*

So there you go - whether we're talking about Marine Biologists, termites,
or potters, we're at our best and most creative, when we're Explaining
Things To Each Other. Arguably the greatest joy in life...

- Veronica

*both quotes are from "The Lives of a Cell", by Lewis Thomas, Penguin 1978.
Heidi wrote:
>>There is so much useful information provided through this listserver. Do
>>any of you ever think about the issues of plagiarism and worry that your
>>ideas might be :kidnapped" by other out there...especially those of you in
>>the academic arena? Do you consider yourselves "authors" when offering
>>advice, etc. in the "cyber world"? How does that play a part in what you
>>say here versus elsewhere?
Veronica Shelford
s-mail: P.O. Box 6-15
Thetis Island, BC V0R 2Y0
Tel: (250) 246-1509