Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lewis Thomas on Termites

This Christmas break I've taken some time to read. We don't 'holiday' enough, you and I, do we? We have too few opportunities in our busy lives to steal several days in a row for something truly enjoyable - in no hurry - perhaps even something utterly unproductive.

When given the rare chance, some of us prefer to rest in solitude while others like to pair up. Perhaps your ideal holiday is with a group of friends or maybe a crowd of strangers. Personally, I dislike crowds and traffic and even excessive small talk so I guess that gives me away. My ideal holiday is some place quiet. And reading fits the bill pretty nicely. Several years ago I rented an X-box during my December holiday and proceeded to sit motionless with my feet up for the better part of four days. It was wonderful. A few years later - another Christmas - I watched three seasons of a brilliant TV series back to back to back for upwards of 40 hours instead of sleeping. This was also absolutely wonderful. Naturally, Kate was far from impressed with me but I like to think that my examples of compulsive behaviour are both rare and fairly amateur. I would expect that many people can do much better.

This year I've channelled my compulsive-holiday-energy into something more valuable. I'm reading.

We all appreciate a 'well written' book but even more satisfying is a topic that is interesting, true, and 'well written about'. I believe that quality content should always comes before quality writing but the latter is a much needed follower. I like history books, biographies, and above all else good popular science books. I've stayed away from fiction for a few years now and I don't plan to go back. I like complicated topics decribed by insightful people who know how to simplify them. I love when an author is able to recognize something remarkable underneath a seemingly boring surface.

I also love clarity and despise the obscurity and needless complexity of some science writing - the twisting and wrapping up of ideas until they have to be re-read three times and deciphered like a code. I imagine that most people must agree with me here and I can only hope that most scientists feel the same. A famous biologist named Peter Medawar once wrote " one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief." I'm not suggesting that all science can be made simple. There's a lot of complexity in the world around us - a lot of math - countless interactions of limitless puzzle pieces. And I am sincerely curious about all of it but I want to learn it from someone who actually wants to teach me, not from someone who is happy just to demonstrate that a subject is out of my reach. I don't like to pay for a book and be given little from the author aside from evidence of a pompous arrogance that overshadows intellect.

Thankfully, there are many very talented science writers who write for us, and not for themselves. My favourite book to date is still 'Faster' by James Gleick.

Good science writing is like a good meal - nutritious content wrapped in delicious style. Indulge me for a moment and imagine that an encyclopedia or a textbook is like a raw piece of chicken breast. Not easily edible. Now picture a well written fiction novel as I do: a bag of bread crumbs. It's better than raw chicken, I suppose, but I need something more from a book than just soft unsatisfying crumbs. I hope you can already see where I'm headed with this... a good science book is chicken schnitzel. Or as they say in Aussie Land... Chicken Schnitty! Delicious.

Here I'll illustrate:

Allow me to offer an delicious example: The late Lewis Thomas was a physician, researcher, and Dean of Yale Medical School among many other roles. He also did a lot of writing and one day had this to say about termites:

" is not the single insect that is the Wonder, it is the collectivity. There is nothing at all wonderful about a single, solitary termite, indeed there is really no such creature, functionally speaking, as a lone termite, any more than we can imagine a genuinely solitary human being; no such thing. Two or three termites gathered together on a dish are not much better; they may move about and touch each other nervously, but nothing happens. But keep adding more termites until they reach a critical mass, and then the miracle begins. As though they had suddenly received a piece of extraordinary news, they organize in platoons and begin stacking up pellets to precisely the right height, then turning the arches to connect the columns, constructing the cathedral and its chambers in which the colony will live out its life for the decades ahead, air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, following the chemical blue print coded in their genes, flawlessly, stoneblind. They are not the dense mass of individual insects they appear to be; they are an organism, a thoughtful, meditative brain on a million legs. All we really know about this new thing is that it does its architecture and engineering by a complex system of chemical signals."

How can one not be impressed by a line like... '
a thoughtful, meditative brain on a million legs'. That's the kind of writing I would like to be capable of one day. Lewis is referring to a concept known as 'swarm intelligence' observable not just in termites but all throughout nature.

In the unimaginably small world of biochemistry - there are plenty of mysteries left to write about and every new answer still reveals more questions. Unfortunately, most of us are unable to appreciate these mysteries because they are best described in the mysterious and unfriendly three dimensional language of 'organic chemistry'. You know... 'all those hexagons'. The reason that so few people speak OC is that high school teachers barely touch it, and universities generally chose not to 'teach' introductory ORGO but rather use the course as an IQ test to identify medical students. Because of the obvious potential to twist and turn organic compounds in 3-dimensions an instructor can easily lose students and offer them an immense intellectual challenge without really asking them to 'learn' or 'remember' anything. And consequently ORGO is frightening. You will either avoid it entirely like most people or learn it for all the wrong reasons like the rest of us. There is, of course, a right reason to learn organic chemistry - a remarkably simple and persuasive reason that everybody seems to miss: organic chemistry it is the language of life - and there is nothing more remarkable than life.

I'll leave you with some termite mounds :)