Late Night Thoughts on Lewis Thomas

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the works of Lewis Thomas. In The Fragile Species, he shared ideas evocative of the late Carl Sagan:

Never mind our embarrassed indignation when we were first told, last century, that we came from a family of apes and had chimps as near cousins. That was relatively easy to accommodate, having at least the distant look of a set of relatives. But this new connection, already fixed by recent science beyond any hope of disowning the parentage, is something else again. At first encounter, the news must come as a kind of humiliation. Humble origins, indeed.

Similarly, Sagan in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space poeticized:

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds throughout the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

Message in a Bottle
Thomas’ appreciation for music was almost as great as his lifelong love affair with science. In an essay from The Lives of a Cell, Thomas offered a suggestion concerning the prospect of interstellar communication: “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 to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.” This wish of his, at least, came to fruition in the form of the Golden Record, the contents of which were chosen by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan and included aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The sounds and images on the phonograph records were selected to illustrate the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life to decipher. [Interestingly, in a Big Bang Theory episode named “The Communication Deterioration,” Koothrappali is selected to help work on an Earth message design and delivery proposal for NASA’s Discovery missions and asks his friends for advice. Wolowitz stresses the need for a device capable of transmitting information across a wide range of perceptual modalities. Sheldon argues that any intelligent life form would at the very least have the ability to locate the position of objects in space, making the ideal lingua franca haptic, i.e. relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.] Making sense of the Golden Record’s contents would require extraterrestrial life to possess the senses of sight, sound, and touch.

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One Glorious Symphony

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 timpani 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.

The Lives of a Cell

Reading these words reminded me quite a bit of a song my classmates and I used to perform in elementary school choir called “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” The chorus and first verse read:

All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws or anything they got now

Listen to the bass, it’s the one on the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and the hippopotamus
Moans and groans with a big to-do,
And old cow just goes ‘moo!’

Well the dogs and the cats they take up the middle
The honeybee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and the pony neighs
And the old coyote howls

The song was originally written by Bill Staines, an American folk musician and singer-songwriter from New England. Various versions of the song have been performed by groups ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Celtic Thunder.

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