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Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony Hardcover – November 7, 1983

4.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Lewis Thomas (1913 1993) was born in New York. He earned a bachelor s degree at Princeton and a doctorate in medicine in 1937. He went on to become professor of pediatric research at the University of Minnesota, chairman of the Departments of Pathology and Medicine and also dean at the New York University Bellevue Medical Center, chairman of the Department of Pathology and dean at Yale Medical School, and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His now classic book, The Lives of a Cell, won the National Book Award in 1974. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 168 pages
  • Publisher: The Viking Press; 1st edition (November 7, 1983)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670703907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670703906
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 20 x 20 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As a one-time practicing physicist (now just an "arm-chair physicist") and lifetime music lover, I have found this beautifully-written little book irresistible over the 17 years it has been in my library. In 1983, when the original hardcover edition came out, this book was given to me as a gift by someone knowing my musical tastes, figuring that it would be the perfect gift. It turned out to be, but for reasons that are largely non-musical.

As an arm-chair scientist, I've read and enjoyed more than a few popularizations by well-known scientists over the years. These include Richard Feynman with his wry humor in virtually everything he wrote (I number myself among those physicists who "cut their eye teeth" on the Feynman Lectures in Physics), Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Carl Sagan, and even Brian Swimme. (The Swimme of "A Walk Through Time" goes down easily, and covers much of the same ground that Thomas does, but in a quite different way; the Swimme of "The Universe is a Green Dragon" is a much harder sell for me due to its hard-pressed attempt to oversimplify.) But for sheer elegance and poetry and breadth of scope, and for essays that provoke thought on the part of the reader, none can hold a candle to Thomas.

Everyone who reads this little masterpiece will have his or her favorites. Here are a few of mine:

In "Things Unflattened by Science" (an essay on unaddressed and/or incomplete challenges that future scientists might well undertake), a paragraph on how biologists might endeavor to better understand what music is, and how it affects the human condition, starting with a rather small-scale assignment to explain the effect of Bach's "The Art of Fugue" on the human mind.
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Format: Paperback
The twenty-four, short essays in Late Night Thoughts On Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony remain surprisingly fresh and fascinating today. While many focus on new discoveries in biology, medicine, and physics, Lewis Thomas also offers a sobering look at the dark side of modern technology. The title essay (the last one in this collection) is particularly haunting.

I almost set this book aside after reading The Unforgettable Fire, the first essay in this collection. Thomas Lewis had awakened in me uncomfortable memories of a distant past. Among my first lessons in kindergarten was to move quickly to the basement when the alarms rang, to crouch down, and to cover my neck with my hands. Along with many others of my generation, I came to accept that nuclear war was virtually inevitable.

Lewis Thomas balances the more serious essays with others characterized by enthusiasm, wonder and excitement for the world about us. His observations are often surprising, and nearly always provocative. Admittedly, a few essays are becoming dated, but this collection is still quite interesting. A few examples include:

The Lie Detector: our physiological response to telling a lie - even when we do it for protection or personal advantage - is sufficiently stressful to be detectable, suggesting that there is at least some physiological compulsion for humans to be honest.

On Speaking of Speaking: Children not only learn languages much more readily than adults, but they seem also to play a key role in shaping and restructuring language, especially in a mixed language setting. Perhaps that period called childhood is ultimately the source of the thousands of languages and dialects that characterize human societies.
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Format: Paperback
The title of this collection alone conjures up a pipe-smoking, fireside dilettante charming his friends with eclectic observations on random but serious subjects. Take away the pipe and the Renaissance man you've envisioned would indeed look a lot like Lewis Thomas, who wrote dozens of breezy, perceptive, witty essays on subjects as varied as the seven wonders of the modern world, the evolution of language, incidents of fraud in science, the faculty of smell, and the onerousness of politics.

Most of these essays appeared in Discover magazine in the early 1980s, and although Thomas introduces current events into his discussions, his subjects are timeless. A notable preoccupation, however, is with the nuclear threat and the irrational thinking that fueled the arms race and, more troubling, the planning for tactical nuclear warfare. Although the Cold War has passed and the threat has greatly diminished (but not vanished), the essays on this subject serve both as reminders that the challenges we currently face (terrorism, global warming, sectarianism) are hardly unprecedented in their peril and as investigations into the madness and stupidity that fear alone can unleash.

The fact that military strategists were (and are) actually planning scenarios for a limited nuclear war can, upon rational reflection, only shock and dismay. While enumerating some of the impressive (if time-consuming and expensive) advances in surgery and therapy, for example, Thomas reminds us, "There exists no medical technology that can cope with the certain outcome of just one small, neat, so-called tactical bomb exploded over a battlefield. . . . If you go ahead with this business, the casualties you will instantly produce are beyond the reach of any health-care system.
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