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June 03, 2002


Stephen Jay Gould reinvented science writing. Before him, we had the flowery exaltation of nature ("Far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing," in Mark Twain's parody) and the skin-deep attempt to bring science to the masses (immune cells are little soldiers no, they're locks and keys except when they're garbage disposals). Gould's essays were something else: witty, respectful of his readers' intelligence, always finding a principle in a grain of sand and a law in a wildflower. That the essays were also a velvet glove for Gould's iron convictions drove many scientists crazy. But we all admired his erudition and explanatory gifts, and several have offered the sincerest form of flattery by trying their hand in the genre he perfected.

My favorite of his essays was about Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Streaks in sports, Gould noted, should command our appreciation not because a player gets a hot hand or a magic rhythm these are cognitive illusions but because his level of skill increases the odds of a lucky run. All long-lived phenomena are "games of a gambler playing with a limited stake against a house with infinite resources ... DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while." This was Gould at his best profundity with a light touch, made all the more poignant because in 1982 he survived a nasty cancer. Steve Gould cheated death, at least for a while, and while he did, he enriched our appreciation of life in all its manifestations.