Oliver Sacks is a physician and writer whose exploration of the link between mind and body became part of the American popular culture with the release of Awakenings. Since then, this master storyteller has released other titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Island of the Colorblind. One of his most recent books, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, will be released in paperback in September.
One of the most obvious aspects of your life is your medical and scientific family.
Well, it was a very big family because my mother was the 16th of 18. Most of the uncles and aunts and the cousins lived in London. So there's a very strong tribal feeling, and a strong scientific feeling because seven of the nine uncles have been in the physical sciences. Two of them were very close to me.
There was a botanical aunt, whom I adored. And another uncle was crazy for number theory. And my parents were medical. It was a family where curiosity and questioning were welcomed. All children ask why, why, why. But I was sometimes given answers, and I wasn't very discouraged.
Once my mom showed me how either tin or zinc emit a strange noise and I was puzzled by this. She said it's due to deformation of the crystal structure, forgetting I was 5.
One of the interesting themes of this book, given that it's a book of your early years, is the story of faith and your family's faith commitment. They were Orthodox Jews?
Yes, they were. They were pretty Orthodox. They kept a kosher house. They went to the synagogue. And all the rituals were there. And my mother would light the candles on Friday when the Sabbath came in. I am not sure what they believed.
They didn't talk about it?
No, I don't think they did talk about it much. And it may be that in Orthodox Judaism there is not much talk, but a lot of practice. I know my father loved the Bible and loved the Talmud, and he would read them a great deal. But no, I'm not sure what they believed.
It sounds like you were being raised in the traditions of faith, but without the intellectual kind of engagement within your own family.
I think that's a good way of putting it. There didn't seem to be much talk about an agent, an agency, a parental figure to whom one would sort of pray and give thanks, although one did so. But there wasn't much discussion.
Did that, with your inquisitive mind, seem odd to you?
It should have seemed odd, but I'm not sure that it did.
How has being raised in an Orthodox Jewish home had an ongoing impact on your life?
Well, I sometimes jokingly call myself an old Jewish atheist, although I'm not sure what's meant by that. I have to say that I quite enjoy the practice of religion, and not only of my own religion. So, typically, I work with the Little Sisters of the Poor, with an Orthodox Catholic Home, as well as an Orthodox Jewish Home Hospital. I enjoy the Orthodox service in the temple. And I can't stand it in English because I'm used to it in Hebrew. I'm like a Catholic who wants it in Latin. But having said that, I cannot conceive of any spirit sort of which is above nature. The term supernatural is unintelligible to me. But on the other hand, nature itself seems so wonderful that I don't feel a hunger or any concept beyond it.
There's a paragraph in this book that talks about your abandonment by your parents [when you went to boarding school]. In that, you say your trust in their love for you was rudely shaken. And this related to your faith in God. You said, "What evidence is there for God's existence?" So you planted two rows of radishes side by side in the vegetable garden. What was the purpose of this experiment?
I asked God if he would either bless or curse one row so I could see a difference and be reassured of his existence. But he ignored my request, or else he wasn't there. But, of course, even to consider this absurd experiment indicated some kind of a breakdown.
You end by saying, "I long, now even more, for something to believe in."
There's an Ian Foster essay which starts, "I do not believe in belief." The notion of order in the universe became something which was essential to my psychological well-being and which I have to believe in, and which was confirmed wonderfully by chemistry and the periodic table and beauty and clarity with which the universe seemed to be put together.
I identified [the inventor of the periodical table] in my mind with Moses. And I thought of him coming down from a sort of Sinai. These are periodic tables of the law.
You are wearing a T-shirt with the tables on it and there is a foldout of the tables in the book. How do you describe your thrill at the periodic tables?
It's so neat. There are these lovely intersecting vertical and horizontal columns and all the elements, all the building blocks of the universe, are related in the most elegant, simple way. And there's also a numerical substrate. So I would think of it sometimes as God's abacus. Having described myself as a nonbeliever, I couldn't avoid terms like that. But it also epitomizes, I think, the, you know, the order of the universe. At least at that level. You could depend on it. You know where you are.
You talk about lacking confidence except when you had a natural order, a natural wonder.
I had a need for solidity and stability and order and clarity and predictability. And two of my uncles—my Uncle Tungsten, the chemical uncle who made light filaments, and another physics uncle—in a way adopted me as a protégé. They encouraged me always to look for the meaning, the explanation under the surface. Why are things the color they are? Why are they hard? What happens when they melt? There was always this pressing for something deeper and something unifying.
Oh, I loved experiments and, you know, I still do. Part of the delight with experiments is having an idea of what will happen. And I think part of it is not quite knowing.
How do you describe your own mind at this point?
I think it's probably a more intuitive sort of mind, which darts around rather than following conclusions to great logical depth. I love the particular. I love the concrete. And on the other hand, I'm also attracted to sort of general laws. Of course, this is another tension or conflict.
What do you make of the current school of thought called "intelligent design," that essentially argues that what you describe as the order of the universe must, in fact, emanate from an intelligence of some sort?
Well, of course, this is an old notion. But the great achievement of Darwin was to show that everything might arise from vicissitudes, accidents, plus evolution. There is no blueprint, but on the contrary, a wonderful sort of growth and adventure.
You use the word danger for work in the laboratory.
Anything creative is adventurous and, by the same token, has risks and has dangers. And I think this also applies to come back to the previous question of evolution itself. There have been many mishaps on the way and whole launches of life have become extinct. But then evolution is an adventure, as well. The whole universe, I think, is like an adventure.
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