If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Insoluble problems abound. It takes almost as much good judgment to recognize these when they turn up as to perceive quickly the ones that can be settled, solved, nailed down once and for all by research.

‘Science and “Science”’

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Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

In science in general, one characteristic feature is the awareness of error in the selection and pursuit of a problem. This is the most commonplace of criteria: if a scientist is going to engage in research of any kind, he has to have it on his mind, from the outset, that he may be on to a dud. You can tell a world-class scientist from the run-of-the-mill investigator by the speed with which he recognizes that he is heading into a blind alley.

‘Science and “Science”’

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Surely, music (along with ordinary language) is as profound a problem for human biology as can be thought of, and I would like to see something done about it.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…Sooner or later, while this process is going on, the biologist shifting the dish of sugar will find that his bees are out there waiting for him, precisely where the next position had been planned. This is an uncomfortable observation to make, harder still to explain in conventional terms: Why would bees be programmed for such behavior in their evolution? Flowers do not walk away in regular, predictable leaps.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Collectively, we are still, in a fundamental sense, a tissue of microbial organisms living off the sun, decorated and ornamented these days by the elaborate architectural structures that the microbes have constructed for their living quarters, including seagrass, foxes, and of course ourselves.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

There are some things about which it is not true to say that every man has a right to his own opinion.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Of all celestial bodies within reach or view, as far as we can see, out to the edge, the most wonderful and marvelous and mysterious is turning out to be our own planet earth. There is nothing to match it anywhere, not yet anyway.

It is a living system, an immense organism, still developing, regulating itself, making its own oxygen, maintaining its own temperature, keeping all its infinite living parts connected and interdependent, including us. It is the strangest of all places, and there is everything in the world to learn about it. It can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead, if we can learn not to meddle and not to destroy.

“Seven Wonders”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

A while ago I received a letter from a magazine editor inviting me to join six other people at dinner to make a list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, to replace the seven old, out-of-date Wonders. … It occurred to me that if the magazine could get any seven people to agree on a list of any such seven things you’d have the modern Seven Wonders right there at the dinner table.

“Seven Wonders”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…I can get a clear picture of any face I feel like remembering, and I can hear whatever Beethoven quartet I want to recall, but except for the leaf bonfire I cannot really remember a smell in its absence.

“On Smell”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…But finally in 1911, it was discovered by Professor O. Pfungst that Hans was not really doing arithmetic at all; he was simply observing the behavior of the human experimenter. …

Whenever I read about that phenomenon, usually recounted as the exposure of a sort of unconscious fraud on the part of either the experimenter or the horse or both, I wish Clever Hans would be given more credit than he generally gets. To be sure, the horse couldn’t really do arithmetic, but the record shows that he was considerably better at observing human beings and interpreting their behavior than humans are at comprehending horses or, for that matter, other humans.

“Clever Animals”