Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks describes his lifelong fascination with chemistry, the basis of his autobiography "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood."
Profile of Oliver Sacks, Chemistry Obsessive, Dreamer of Scandium
MATT LAUER, co-host:
This morning, a look at the strange and wonderful world of Dr. Oliver Sacks. A practicing neurologist in New York City, Sacks is best-known for his award-winning books with quirky titles. They're case studies of his patients' unusual neurological disorders. But this time, Sacks is writing about his own life and his obsession with chemistry. Our national correspondent, Jamie Gangel, is here with that story. Jamie, good morning.
JAMIE GANGEL, reporting:
Good morning, Matt. Oliver Sacks' latest book is an autobiography entitled "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood," another one of those quirky titles. But you don't need to be a science buff to appreciate it, his fascination with chemistry is contagious.
DR. OLIVER SACKS: In the periodic table, you have vertical and horizontal groupings, and in my dreams this sometimes becomes the avenues of the streets of--of New York.
GANGEL: Oliver Sacks is probably not what you would expect of a world-famous doctor.
DR. SACKS: If I can show you this, shalite is fluorescent. Now can you see that beautiful blue color?
GANGEL: While critics praise him as a scholar and genius, Sacks prefers to talk about his love of motorcycles, show off his T-shirts.
DR. SACKS: I--I--I'm sort of fond of--of the heavy metal shirts.
GANGEL: And in the lab, is something of an absent-minded professor.
DR. SACKS: So let's--if we can do so without mishap, let's light this
Bunsen burner. OK.
GANGEL: In fact, when Hollywood made his book "Awakenings" into an Oscar-nominated movie, Sacks laughingly admits Robin Williams, who played him, captured every eccentric mannerism.
DR. SACKS: For a year after, whenever I adjusted my spectacles people would say `you're imitating Robin Williams,' and I'd say, no, you've got it the wrong way around. It's--but I--I think he has an amazing ability not just to imitate but to absorb and transmute a character and present it as, you know, in--in an entirely original way.
(Clip of "Awakenings")
GANGEL: But it is apparent that, even at the age of 68, this charming, shy, confirmed bachelor still has a childlike passion and wonder for chemistry.
DR. SACKS: On with the permanganate, which will start bubbling--whoops...
GANGEL: Well done.
DR. SACKS: ...as it's giving off oxygen.
GANGEL: That's all that extra oxygen.
DR. SACKS: Right.
GANGEL: It began in London, where he was born and raised, the youngest of four boys. At first, life was idyllic, Sacks grew up in a family of scientists, both his parents were doctors, and happy to answer his never-ending questions, usually about metals.
DR. SACKS: I had some tender memories of tin and zinc. When tin or zinc are bent, they--they make a peculiar sound, it's called a cry of tin, the cry of zinc. And I asked my mother about that and she said it's due to deformation of the crystal structure, forgetting that I was five.
GANGEL: But at the age of six, World War II changed everything. First, there was the trauma of the bombing of London, then Oliver was sent off to boarding school.
DR. SACKS: I think there was a sort of crazy headmaster and maybe the power went to his head and he was really a flagellomaniac, he sort of beat us all black and blue, and I was beaten, I think, almost every day between--for four years, but we all were. A lot of the kids complained to their parents and were taken away, I--I didn't complain.
GANGEL: Why not?
Dr. SACKS: I don't know. I've never been able to voice things for myself. I can voice things for my patients, I can't voice them for myself.
GANGEL: Instead, Sacks took refuge in the world of science and math, spending hours consoled by numbers.
Dr. SACKS: Now, my favorite numbers are prime numbers.
DR. SACKS: Because they were individuals, they couldn't be divided, they were there. A prime number was always itself, and I think possibly when I partly felt an attack on my identity and I thought I was being divided and alienated all the while and somehow one could depend on prime numbers.
GANGEL: After numbers, Sacks became obsessed with chemistry. Word is, your parents were also very nice about letting you set up a lab in the house.
DR. SACKS: They were...
GANGEL: In which you did untold damage, I gather.
Dr. SACKS: Well, they were--they were wonderfully supportive about this. And there was a little back room, it was also very close to the lawn, so when something boiled over or was about to explode, I could run out to the lawn. The lawn had already been half-destroyed by bombs in the—in 1940 in the Blitz, and I sort of finished it off.
GANGEL: But you loved to blow things up.
DR. SACKS: Well--well, all kids do.
GANGEL: As a teen-ager, Sacks gave up chemistry for medicine, but admits his favorite book remains "The 29th Edition of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics." And I've read you still dream about chemistry?
DR. SACKS: I seem to quite--quite a bit, often. They're sort of strange dreams. A while back, I--I dreamt of eating a hamburger made of scandium. And--now, scandium is--is a very rare, strange metal. And I often dream of the periodic table, this wonderful organization of -- of all--all the elements. I love the periodic table and, you know, still have it.
GANGEL: You carry it in your wallet.
DR. SACKS: I--I--yeah, it's...
GANGEL: Your New York driver's license and, what everyone needs, your periodic table.
DR. SACKS: Everyone needs a periodic table, yeah.
GANGEL: But while Sacks knows most people don't share his obsession with periodic tables or chemistry, he hopes his latest book will remind them about the importance of discovery.
DR. SACKS: Curiosity is universal and precious and needs to be nourished and there's no substitute for experience, must be--must be hands-on.
Synopsis: Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist and teacher, devised the periodic table — a comprehensive system for classifying the chemical elements.
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