November 2001

Oliver Sacks

Chemical reaction: Oliver Sacks finds cosmic order in the elements
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I reach Oliver Sacks at a hotel in Ithaca, New York. Normally, the celebrated neurologist and author of such marvelously readable science books as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat lives, writes and practices medicine in New York City. There he makes the occasional house call ("I like house calls. I think they're crucial.") and, time permitting, sees all comers as patients. ("I'm not snooty about seeing only certain exotic syndromes; I'm happy to see people with slipped disks, cricks in their necks or anything else.")

But for the next couple of weeks, until he sallies forth on what he calls "another neurological adventure," or until his publisher packs him off to San Francisco to promote his newest and most engagingly idiosyncratic book, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Oliver Sacks is enjoying a sort of scholar's idyll at Cornell. "Yesterday I met with a botanist, a class of psychology students interested in color vision and a freshman writing class," he says. "Today I'm going to witness some high-pressure physics, and then there's a Greek mythology class."

With such a wide range of interests and the ability to write in interesting ways about any or all of them, it's no great surprise that Sacks succeeds in Uncle Tungsten at taking the seemingly dull topic of chemistry and turning it into a great adventure. In Uncle Tungsten it's Sacks' own boyhood enthusiasm for all things chemical that provides the narrative energy. Sacks writes with intelligence, passion and even humor about key personalities and turning points in the history of chemistry and topics ranging from metals and minerals to photography and spectroscopy. ("I've been investigating the campus with my pocket spectroscope!" Sacks exclaims at one point in our conversation. "I'm delighted to find that in my room here at Cornell there are four sorts of light.")

Sacks grew up in an exceptionally accomplished Anglo-Jewish family. His grandfather invented the Landau lamp, a crucial safety innovation in coal mining. Both of his parents were doctors. His Uncle Dave—the Uncle Tungsten of the title—was an inveterate experimenter with metals and lightbulbs (his nickname came from the tungsten his light bulb factory used for filaments). His first cousin was Abba Eban, former Israeli foreign minister.

While the chapters Sacks devotes to describing his family and homelife do not dwell on his inner life, he does reveal himself in bits and pieces: that almost from birth he was expected to become a doctor and that, eager to begin his training, his mother had him dissecting human fetuses by the age of 11, which horrified him; that his Uncle Tungsten and his more eccentric and intellectually forbidding Uncle Abe, rather than his parents, shaped and abetted his growth as a boy chemist; that he was sent as a child to a boarding school outside of London during World War II, and was abused by a tyrannical headmaster.

Overriding the darker moments is Sacks' unalloyed enthusiasm for the discoveries of science. Who else, for example, could rhapsodize so insightfully about the development of the periodic table? ("The feelings that all the elements could be elegantly and economically related to one another in terms of their physical and chemical properties and that they fell into natural groups and that there was also this mysterious periodicity as one went up in atomic weight was the most exciting thing I'd ever encountered," Sacks says. "It gave me strong feelings of cosmic order."

Sacks says he was a scribbler, a keeper of journals, from way back. Relying on the early journals and reconducting his old—often stinky and explosive—experiments, Sacks has sought to re-create here his boyhood adventures in chemistry. For him Uncle Tungsten is "a mixture of the reminiscent impulse and perhaps a pedagogic one. I would like to imagine that there are other 10 and 12 and 14-year-old boys and girls who find resonance and excitement in such discoveries. I want to retrace a journey into wonder."


Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.

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