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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Considering Oliver Sacks

In his book “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” Oliver Sacks decribes how a patient with agnosia – or one who couldn't recognize faces – (quote) “reached out his hand … and took hold of his wife's head.. [and] tried to lift it off, to put [the hat] on...”

I mention Dr Sacks, a Professor of Clinical Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as one more in the genre of scientist/artists, like Alexander Borodin or Richard Feynman.

Born in 1933 to two doctors, who lived in a large rambling house in NW London, Sacks has described a happy childhood except for his evacuation during the London bombing, to a school where boys were often beaten. In his 300pp book Uncle Tungsten (Uncle Tungsten was his Uncle Dave who made his living drawing tungsten into fine filaments for incandescent lamps) Sacks has included extensive descriptions of his excitement with chemistry – a subject which has of course fascinated many youngsters, from Primo Levi to the present pope.

The teen-aged Sacks won a scholarship to Oxford, and did his medical training in London. Dr June Finer, of New Paltz, who was at medical school with him, describes him as large and strong, who once yanked her out of a swimming pool with one hand. In his book “A Leg to Stand on” there is a vivid description of his setting off before dawn to climb a 6000' mountain in Norway alone. About 2/3 of the way up he saw a sign that said “Beware of the Bull” and (quote) “... walking around a boulder as big as a house ... I practically trod on an enormous animal...totally occupying the path... its vast white face becoming transformed ... It became first a monster and now the Devil.”

In his 'plunging flight' back down the path he mis-stepped and found himself with his leg twisted at a grotesque angle beneath him. The leg was useless, hanging nervelessly before him. With knee buckled he managed to make a splint from the umbrella walking stick he always had with him. But the majority of the book is a fascinating description of dealing with doctors and nurses, interspersed with references to writers on many topics, as well as his dreams and fears for the future.

Up to the age of 14 he had been passionate about chemistry, but then he says in Uncle Tungsten, “... it came upon me gradually ... I no longer woke up [and said] 'Today I will get the Clerici solution! And today I will read about Humphrey Davy' and 'Today I will understand diamagnetism, perhaps!...  I had ceased to carry my pocket spectroscope with me.'”

50 years later he received from a friend a little bar of metal which (quote) “I recognized by its feel... as tungsten.” Despite a whole life as a neurologist, his passion for chemistry had survived. In fact, he says, he still recalls, quote, “....[that] the color of lilacs in spring is that of divalent vanadium … and …. radishes [for me] evoke the smell of selenium.”

His charming explanations of the differences between nitrates, nitrites and nitrides and the improved language that Lavoisier introduced,make Sacks' book an excellent introduction to basic chemistry. “I decomposed water using electrolysis” he writes, “and then re-composed it, sparking hydrogen and oxygen together.”

Later he says that he and two schoolboy friends threw a big lump of sodium into a pond at Hampstead Heath, where it “sped around and around ... like a demented meteor ... with a huge sheet of yellow flame above it.”

“Cesium,” he says “exploded when it hit the water ... one never forgot the properties of the alkali metals after this.”

For making hydrogen, he explains, he used aluminum bottle caps and caustic soda. He also poured vinegar over chalk, producing a heavy gas, carbon dioxide – which, when he filled a balloon with it, sank to the floor. His Uncle Tungsten told him that tungsten hexafluoride would be even heavier – in fact 12 times denser than air.

In the book,“An Anthropologist from Mars” Sacks describes an autistic woman, Temple Grandin, who earned a Ph.D. in Animal Science, and who now teaches at Colorado State University. The title is from her own description of her inability to relate emotionally – she says she feels somewhat like, quote, “an anthropologist from Mars”. Dr Sacks describes how she built herself a wooden 'hugging machine', where she could control how tightly her upholstered planks squeezed her.

Finally, although Dr Sacks has spent his life in science, he has received numerous awards for his writing, as did the chemist Primo Levi, for example.


1. “Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”;  Alfred A.Knopf, NY, 2001.

2. “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”;  Summit Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, NY, 1970.

3. “A Leg to Stand on”;  Simon & Schuster, NY, 1984

4. “An Anthropologist on Mars”;  Alfred A.Knopf, NY, 1995.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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