Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review of The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher

This book came out in 1979 when I was 10. And if you loved to dance disco - as I do in private, this is a wonderful year. You would have shuffled to YMCA, I Will Survive, and rocked to My Sharona. I was busy fishing, secretly bird-watching, and trying not to get beat up by neighborhood teenagers. 
     The Medusa and the Snail is a collection of essays by Lewis Thomas, then president Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and author of his other book Lives of a Cell - which I highly recommend. I like his style of style of writing. It is honest and to the point - like a conversation at a party with friends - perhaps after a few drinks. 
     Most of the essays are just random thoughts, albeit well-written. A few essays resonated with me, mostly because I am floored by how little the world has moved on certain things and quickly advanced in others. Thomas died in 1993 and was hoping to live long enough to understand the ontogeny/development of tissues, organs, and organ systems. Although this isn't completely understood, I think we have made great strides in describing and understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms of development. I wonder what he would think of genes called noggin, Sonic the Hedgehog, and groovin.
     He wondered where computation would take us and had great hope for artificial intelligence (surprising that the term existed then) and was unsure how well we could understand human conscience. I'll need to read some Stephen Pinker to catch up on what we know. Speaking of Pinker, I'm reading his book on writing and many of his suggestions overlap with Thomas' essay Notes on Punctuation. 
     The essay that had the greatest impression was How to Fix the Premedical Curriculum. He brings up that medical schools don't want undergraduates to be trained as pre-meds but, rather, be broadly trained. Yet the reality at the time (1970's) was that premeds were still focused on biology so they would score well on the MCAT. Thomas recommends getting rid of the health science coordinator, dropping biology courses other than the basics, and actually giving priority of admissions to non-biology majors. Here's the amazing thing: this is exactly the same situation today. We STILL hear that medical school want broadly-educated students - scholars. But we still recommend our students take histology, biochem, etc and rejoice when students place out of these courses. When then of incentives to create scholars? 

There isn't. 

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