Oliver Sacks Remembers Uncle Tungsten

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. His most recent book, Uncle Tungsten, is published by Knopf. It’s a remarkably personal look at his own childhood and really, through his eyes, at another era.
Q. It’s wonderful to have you with us.
A. Nice to be here.
Q. This book is remarkable in its weaving together of a number of different tributaries that have, in fact, influenced your life. And when you have a chance, as you did, to look back on your life, I’m sure it was a fascinating process of seeing how different little incidents in your life actually have affected and shaped you. But certainly, one of the most obvious aspects of your life is your family, a medical and scientific family. When you said, “It’s the family business. We are scientific,” and I have to say that this is so different from my family. We have three generations of theologians in my family. And-and as I read your book, I reflected on what it would have been like. Because actually, as a child, I had all the fascinations that you did with-with rocks and with chemicals and with and yet you were in an environment where this was facilitated. You had, essentially, an entire family of disciplines whether you needed help in physics or botany or whatever, you could call on a family member. Talk about being raised in a scientific family.
A. Well, it was a very big family as I start, because my mother was the sixteenth of 18. And most of the family, most of the uncles and aunts and the cousins, lived in London. And so there’s a very strong tribal feeling. And, as you say, a strong scientific feeling because seven of the nine uncles have been in the physical sciences, were in the physical sciences. Two of them were very close to me. There was a botanical aunt, whom I adored.
Q. A botanical Aunt Len, to be precise.
A. And another uncle who was crazy for number theory. And my parents were medical. And so it was a family, I think, where curiosity and-where curiosity and questioning were welcomed. I mean, all children ask why, why, why. But I was sometimes given answers, and I wasn’t very discouraged.
Q. Well, I mean, some of the things that you talked about are your early conversations with your mother. And she would talk about the-the, you know, physical composition of things when you were just a young child.
A. Oh, yeah. Well, once she showed me how tin or zinc emit a strange noise, the so-called “cry” of tin or zinc. And I was puzzled by this. And she said it’s due to deformation of the crystal structure, forgetting I was five.
Q. Just a typical five-year old conversation with Mom about
A. Yes.
Q. Well, one of the interesting things as you think about your own life and work,
is the influence of your mother and father, because you describe them. They’re both physicians. But you made a comment that your father, when he would go on house calls, he loved it because he loved people. And he viewed the work that he did as serving people. And you comment that your mother, while she cared about people, was more on the analytical side. Shy. More drawn to the medical field because of her love of history and natural science. And yet both of those were part of your upbringing.
A. Yes, and I think I would-I would temperamentally, I’m probably closer to my mother, although I seem to be getting more sociable as I get older. But I, like my father, I love house calls. And this is such a rich experience.
Q. When you think about that impact on your own life, as a young boy, going on house calls and seeing your father’s genuine interest in a family, that is something as a matter of fact, that somebody in one of the reviews I read a few years ago about you, described you as that rare erudite physician who genuinely seems to care about people. And while I don’t want to generalize and characterize the medical profession as uncaring, those are a combination that are really wonderful in the medical profession. And you had a model of it as a kid.
A. Yeah. I was very lucky. Yeah. I had-I had lots of models. But, in particular, I think models of good physicians in my parents.
Q. When I-when I you and I were just talking, and here it is, it’s rainy Seattle, not everyone’s waking thought would be, let’s go for a swim. But you talk about how you connected with your father through his swimming. He loved to swim.
A. Oh, he-he was such an aquatic creature. He always had his swim trunks with him. Any body of water and he would want to dive in. And he-he sort of threw us all in. We were all water babies. So–and at a few weeks old, swimming is native, it’s instinctual. So-and-but I would often go for swims with him. Of course, I couldn’t keep up with the old man when I was young, but then it became a very nice form of contact.
Q. Yeah.
A. And stayed really, because he swam until he was 95, right until the end.
Q. Is that right. That’s amazing. One of the fascinating things about reading this book is most of us know you through your work in your other books, so we’ve known you as someone who is operates a certain way in life. Now going back and seeing the different strands that have contributed to your life it’s fascinating to hear some of your own observations. For instance, you talk about Auntie Alida, who represents the Sacks mind, which you describe as “intuitive sudden swoops of thought.” And Auntie Lina, the Landau mind, the more kind of analytical. Was that something that-that was obvious to you as a kid when you watched them and were you kind of identifying with one of them more than the other?
A. No. There-there’s a danger of hindsight in coming to a book like this. I-I think I-I was aware of a sort of difference. I-I don’t think I could characterize it sort of too well. And I think I probably wasn’t quite sure where-where-where I belonged. I think I reared sometimes one way and sometimes the other.
Q. How do you describe your own mind at this point?
A. I think it’s probably a more intuitive sort of mind which darts around rather than following conclusions to great logical depth.
Q. Yeah.
A. As an analytical mind would be. I love the particular. I love the concrete. And on the other hand, I’m also attracted to sort of general laws and then, of course, this is another tension or conflict.
Q. But-but a conflict that, in your case, has produced creativity.
A. Yes.
Q. It has been productive.
A. Yes. Yes. I-I-I hope so-and-but¢â‚¬¦ No. And-and chemistry, for me, which was such a passion was at first particulars. Particular colors, smells, transformations. All particularities. And then, of course, I wanted to know how they were related.
Q. Hm. We’re going to get to that in a minute, because it’s one of the fascinating stories of the book. How many-how many books do you know that open with the line, “Many of my childhood memories are of metals.” I don’t know how many kids would have, reflecting back, have thought of it that way, but weave a little bit about the medical and scientific family with Uncle Tungsten, who introduced you to one of the things that happened was these-these family members would introduce you to other writers or people in the field and kind of give you a breath of-of-of the field that you were interested in, which is rich and unfortunately, I would imagine, rare.
We’ll be back with more of Oliver Sacks coming up right after this. His
most recent book is Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)
We’re visiting with Oliver Sacks, who is a physician and writer and has written a number of wonderful books. Most recently Uncle Tungsten, which the writing of this book itself was a phenomenal story. I don’t editing from a couple of million words to a-to a compact book is an amazing story in itself. This is the story of a medical and scientific family. It’s also a story of a childhood in World War II England. You’re sent off to boarding school, Braefield School–
A. Right.
Q. –which was a dreadful experience. What was happening at that school?
A. Well, I think-I think there was a sort of deranged headmaster. Although he had apparently been a decent person earlier, but in the position of despotic power¢â‚¬¦ And we were sort of rather starved at the school. And rationing existed, but our food parcels were looted. And although there’s a certain tradition of corporal punishment and beating in English schools, he was sort of over the top and, I think, probably a something of a sadist. And so, you know, a beating–beatings were daily. And most of the people there complained. But there was something in me, and in my brother who was there with me, which made it difficult to complain.
Q. Which brother was there with you?
A. This was my brother, Michael, who was there with me.
Q. Yeah. We’ll mention him in a moment. You, fortunately, were eventually moved out of that school when it folded. Some of the other stories that you tell are reminiscent of the stories I read of children in–during World War II in England. A 1,000-pound bomb, a thermite bomb. How did experiences like that effect you as a kid?
A. Well, I-I was mostly away in the worst of the bombing, but I was there for part of the Blitz in December, ’40. And, well, it was rather exciting in a way having this enormous bomb, which didn’t explode next door and wondering when the whole street was evacuated and we were all holding flashlights covered with red crepe paper. We didn’t know if the house would be there. And the incendiary bombs, the thermite bombs that was dramatic as well. These are little bombs and they throw molten metal in all directions. But I-but paradoxically I wished then that I could have been with the family in London and bombed, rather than being out in this awful school and separated.
Q. Yeah. The separation from family was a profound shaping experience in your life.
A. Yeah. I think so. And for millions of others, as well.
Q. One of the little asides was the sacramental banana. Your father was going to hold a banana somehow and you describe it as a sacramental banana. And he peeled it and he cut it into equal portions and everything. And we forget what an absolute treasure having fruit is.
A. Yeah. Well, bananas had vanished at the beginning of the war. I was just sick. So there was this you know, they had this enormous mythical quality. And he got one in ’43, and-and the little segments were placed like-like a host on the tongue.
Q. Huh. You also in the book talk about some other I would describe them as defining moments, or traumas, or people in your life. Michael, certainly. A brother who came back from the experience that you had shared in boarding school and really moved into a psychotic stage. That had to be a tremendously shaping part of your own life and trajectory.
A. I think Michael had a worse time than I did. He moved from-from the frying pan into the fire to another school where he was really became the butt of terrible bullying. And-and the-and-and he broke down when he was 15 or 16 and I was 10 or 11. I had just got back. And I-I would hear him yelling and hallucinating and I could, more easily than I liked, imagine what was going on with him because I felt there was more of similar things in myself. And on the one hand I wanted to reach out and sympathize. And on the other hand I was terrified of this vortex of emotions and delusions. And I think this was one of the things which made me shut the door and sort of stay in my little laboratory and concentrate on other things. On chemistry. On nature.
Q. Yeah. When people think about Awakenings, though, and stories like that, were you was this a self-conscious part of-of a drive towards understanding people in like conditions?
A. I think the-the awakening situation was in a way very different. I mean, these were people who had had a strange neurological condition
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œand had been brought to a standstill and were-and were out of it. It was not, I think, you know, due to acute psychological trauma. It was a defensive.
Q. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
A. But-but-but I think perhaps there have been some-some overlaps.
Q. You also had Auntie Birdie living in your home. And she was living a very different kind of life. And she was your first real experience with death.
A. Yeah. I-I Birdie was the only one of the 18 who had it was never clear what the matter was. She was somewhat retarded and a little undersized but, you know, one never thought of her I never thought of her as that. I mean, she loved us unconditionally. I loved going into her room. There was a sweet simplicity about her. But she developed a medical condition, and my mother and father would sort of, when they heard her little bell ring, would go in to help her. But one day the attack of heart failure was too severe and she died in my mother’s arms. My mother had, in fact, tried to relieve the pressure by cutting her vein. There was blood everywhere. And-but-yeah. That was my first real experience with the death of a close person.
Q. Part of understanding your passion about particulars and about metals and about chemistry was the degree to which they provided a place of confidence for you. A place of certainty. A place of-of feeling that you could operate well, which was in contrast to some of what you had experienced as a-as a boy in other settings. For instance, Cub Scouts were an altogether unpleasant experience for you.
A. Oh, well, I don’t know about that. I-I think they were it was a lot of fun in a way, but I was just terribly bad. I couldn’t make a fire and I couldn’t pitch a tent. And then there was that business with-with the damper, when we had to make these things and I couldn’t find any flour, but I spied some-some cement in the corner.
Q. Now, how old were you at that time?
A. I think I was 11. In fact, there is a photo in the book of me in the Cub Scouts. And somehow I persuaded myself that cement could do instead of flour. And, you know, I baked this thing and flavored it and-and the gave it to the scoutmaster. And he-and he was intrigued by it, and bit into it and broke a tooth. And then, of course, I was expelled. He thought this raised deep, deep matters. Did I intend to hurt him? Was I crazy? Whatever it was, you know, I was not fit to be a scout.
Q. Oh, man. Well, you know, so many of your experiences connect to different feelings of exclusion and not-not fitting in that every child has, I think. And they’re told wonderfully.
We’re going to be back with some more of Oliver Sacks coming up right
after this. His most recent book is Uncle Tungsten, published by Knopf, available at your local bookstores. And we’ll be right back.
(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Oliver Sacks. His most recent book is Uncle Tungsten. We’ve been talking a bit about his family, a medical and scientific family, that-that allowed his curiosity to not only find an outlet but actually to inform it and shape it and enrich it. And also it’s a story about a boyhood in World War II England, with some common and shared experiences that other children had at that time, but also some that were unique in shaping. And some of the people and-and events in his life that-that were shaping, as well, as a kid.
Q. One of the interesting sub-themes of this book, given that it’s a book of his
early years, is the story of-of faith and-and-and his family’s faith commitment and some of the thinking that was going on in his mind. Your-your family at that time was practicing Orthodox Judaism.
A. 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.
Q. That’s interesting. That’s interesting because you’re when you say you’re not sure what they believed. They didn’t talk about it? They
A. No, I don’t think they did talk about it much. And it-it may be that in-in Orthodox Judaism there is not much talk, but a lot of practice.
Q. Uh-huh.
A. Although I know my father loved the Bible and loved the Talmud, and he would-he would read them a great deal. But no, I’m not sure what they believed.
Q. It was interesting, you-you remember your father in the library, which was one of those sacred places in the home. And he would at night¢â‚¬¦ Frequently, you describe him as someone who would read the Talmud and who was-was meditating and thinking on those matters. And, as I understand it, was fairly focused. Not easily interrupted in those times.
A. But I still don’t know what they believed.
Q. That is-that is a fascinating comment. You were having some fairly interesting thoughts as a kid and even early on in your kind of scientific and-and faith understanding. There’s a comment where you talk about, “I was pleased we were made of the same elements as stars,” but you had the sense that we were on loan and at some point we could fly away.
A. Yeah. I-I-I think that was probably some-some sense of transience, you know, from the, you know, from the start, although it became much worse after Braefield.
Q. Now, there’s a paragraph in this book that talks about your abandonment by your parents. And you said, you know, in your abandonment by your parents your trust in them, your love from them was rudely shaken. With this my belief in God, too, which gets to the issue of belief. And 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?
A. I knew you would go to page 25. Well, I-I sort of asked God if he would either bless or curse one row so I could see a difference and-and be reassured of his existence. But he ignored my request, or else he wasn’t there. But-but, of course, even to consider this absurd experiment, you know, indicated, you know, a breakdown anyhow.
Q. You end with, I long to, now even more, for something to believe in, which is-is part of the
A. You know, there’s an Ian Foster essay which starts, “I do not believe in belief.” But I think for me the notion of-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-and the periodic table and beauty and clarity with which-with which-with which the universe seemed to be put together.
Q. You have an affinity with Einstein in that sense because you quote Einstein in a few different places. And he also was very much wanting to find the order in things. And feeling that with the periodic tables he said something like, a corner of the great veil has been lifted.
A. You know, something that I-I don’t know whether I put it in the book or not because so much got edited out, but with Mendeleev, who discovered or invented the periodic table, I identified him in my mind with Moses. And I thought of him coming down from a sort of Sinai. These are periodic tables of the law.
Q. With the tablets. And for those of you, obviously, this is radio not television, but Dr. Oliver Sacks is in the studio wearing a T-shirt with the periodic tables in it. And this book has a two-page, you know, fold of the-of the periodic tables in it. You-there-I want to just touch briefly on it and then move on, but it is striking to me that your family was very passionately involved in the sense of Jewish community. Lina was raising money for Hebrew University. Zionism was part of your-your parents, kind of foisted on them. They had a large house. You described yourself as kind of passionately negative as a child about that. You talked about personally enjoying certains of the festivals but others of them, ironically, Yom Kippur, both of your grandfathers died on Yom Kippur, as did Rabbi Schechter.
A. But that may have been a holy, a holy death. You know, that is the aspiration of Orthodox Jews, to meet their maker at that point.
Q. But then, but interestingly enough, one connection was made with your issue of order by your, I think, Aunt Lina who said, “God thinks in numbers.” I mean, when you say, I don’t know 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. Is that accurate or¢â‚¬¦
A. Yes. I-I-I think that’s a good way of putting it. And but the-and there didn’t seem to be much talk about an agent, an agency, a parental figure, a figure to whom one would sort of pray and thanks, although one did so. But there wasn’t much discussion.
Q. Did that, with your inquisitive mind, did that seem odd to you?
A. It should have seemed odd, but I’m not sure that it did.
Q. So has that-has that– How has that had an ongoing impact on your life? The fact that you were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home?
A. Well, I-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-I enjoy the Orthodox service in the temple. And-and I can’t stand it in English because I’m used to it in Hebrew. This was–I’m like a Catholic who wants it in Latin. And-but having said that, I-I cannot conceive of any spirit sort of which is above nature, that the term supernatural is unintelligible to me. But on the other hand, nature itself seems so wonderful that I am-I don’t feel a hunger or any concept beyond it.
Q. What do you make of the current school of thought called “intelligent design,” that essentially argues the–what you described as the order of the universe and says such order must, in fact, emanate from an intelligence of some sort.
A. Well, of course, this is-this is an old notion, sort of Pauling’s watch and all that, but the great achievement of Darwin, I think, was to show that-what-that everything might arise from vicissitudes, accidents, plus evolution. And that there is no blueprint. But on the contrary, a wonderful sort of growth and adventure.
We’re going to be back with more of Oliver Sacks right after this. Don’t go away.
(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’ve been enjoying a conversation with Oliver Sacks, talking about his most recent book Uncle Tungsten. It’s the story of a medical and scientific family, a story of a boyhood in World War II England, the story of traumas and defining moments and-and some of the faith traditions that he was raised in. But most certainly the centerpiece of this book is the story of a love affair with science, with minerals, with periodic tables, with all of the stuff of science. And it’s a book that opens with, “Many of my childhood memories are of metals.”
Q. Talk about how that became an organizing force in your life, a refuge. You talk about lacking confidence except when I had a natural order, a natural wonder. Then I would feel a level of confidence.
A. Well, I came back from this crazy school with a sense that-that people could not be depended on. And I had a need for solidity and stability and order and clarity and predictability. And the two of my uncles, my Uncle Tungsten, the chemical uncle who made light filaments, and another physics uncle sort of, in a way, adopted me as proteges, or I adopted them as uncles. I don’t know. And they became sort of gurus, mentors, guides, in-in science. I think, first of all, you know, letting me range in a playful, adventurous way, although with a few bounds for safety, doing what I wanted. But also encouraging 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? And so-so there was always-always this pressing for something deeper, and something unifying.
Q. And in the delightful sense of experimentation, of discovery.
A. Oh, I-I-I-I loved experiments and, you know, and-and I still do. And, in fact, in writing this book I sort of faltered back into feeling something. My-my-my office is full of sort of crystals dangling and-and-and electrical machines and minerals and what not, putting software in the microwave oven. If you do that and you melt it, then you can make a lovely plastic sulphur which is-which is much more elastic than a rubber band. Lovely stuff. But, yeah, part of the delight with experiments is having an idea of what will happen. And I think part of it is not quite knowing.
Q. You even use the word “danger” in the laboratory, that certain sense of-of something could happen here and be unknown of it, along with the hopeful predictive aspect of it.
A. Well, yes. I mean, I think-I think anything creative is adventurous and, by the same token, has risks and has dangers. And I think this also applies to come back to a previous question to evolution itself. There have been many mishaps on the way and you sort of, whole launches of life have become extinct. And but then-but the evolution is-is an adventure, as well. The whole universe, I think, is like an adventure.
Q. You set up a lab in your home and you, early on, liked the explosions and the dazzling. And I think your brother, Marcus, bore the brunt of it once upon the removal of his eyebrows.
A. Oh, yeah. That was hydrogen exploded. He-he took it in very good heart, yeah.
Q. You-you-you were introduced to Humphry Davy, a poet/chemist, who was a friend of Coleridge, as I understand it. And you said that what you liked about him was his exuberance and the way he approached science with the enthusiasms of a boy. And to be honest, that’s the sense that I got through this whole book. It took me back to my own childhood, though we were raised in different eras and different places, to that wonderful sense of possibility. And the wonderful sense of discovery. When you’re young almost everything is new. And if you have an appetite for learning and learning how things are put together, there’s just such a wonderful sense of, well, of wonder about childhood when you have that kind of sense of experimentation. And my sense is that you connected with Davy because he was like you were.
A. Yeah. I-I-I think so. And sort of the book is-is about wonder. I mean, this is-I think this is the theme. One of the themes.
Q. What would another theme be of this book?
A. Well, it how to reconcile that with the rest of life. And-and-and, I mean, right at the end I sort of, you know, as with a family business, I can’t quite say the family business is wonder–or perhaps one can but, you know, one is going to become a medical student. One is going to sit in class. And how is one going to hold on to his sense of wonder?
Q. Someday somebody needs to go around with people who have made great contributions to society and ask them about teachers that influenced them, and put together a whole storybook of them. I read a lot of biographies, and every one of them, at some point, had some teacher that was demanding and engaging in a way that-that ended up with a student loving to learn. And you had one of those. A Sid Pask, I think, was his name.
A. Yeah.
Q. Great teacher.
A. Yeah. He was our biology teacher. And we were sort of all in love with him and in love with biology. And he was in love with biology. And there was nothing we would do anything. We went from these sort of mad, fresh-water expeditions and plant collecting and marine biology and we got frozen and we got baked and bitten and stung. And-and we loved it. But the-but equally, I think, there are times when-when there wasn’t a teacher. And-and one sort of had to do things oneself.
Q. Hm. Hm. Your-your thrill at the periodic tables, the periodical table of elements, how do you describe that? Why was that so important to you?
A. Well, because it’s so neat. First, it’s so neat, as you see. 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 non-believer, I couldn’t avoid terms like that. And but it-it also epitomizes, I think, the, you know, the-the order of the universe. At least at that level. You could depend on it. You know where you are.
Q. Hm. You will love, folks, all of the stories of-of Oliver Sacks’s own kind of journey through learning the lessons that scientists prior to him had learned and learning it himself through experimentation. There comes a point where the attitude in the family is it’s time for the play is over. It’s time to, you know, become a professional. And you-you are routed towards being a physician. And you talked about your brothers. David had given up music. And Marcus had given up languages. It sounds like you came back to your early days in a way that meant that you got to have both.
A. I suppose so. I am, you know I also became very hungry for music, as well. You know, there’s a time where the periodic table and the elements are not enough. And you need people and animals and music and-and-and all that. But for some reason now in my, as I advance through my 60s, these boyhood enthusiasms come back. And I’ve-I’ve really sort of felt it strongly writing about it. I don’t quite know how the present me is related to the little boy in that book.
Q. Seriously.
A. I don’t quite know and, but at the moment I have no impulse to write a volume two.

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