Oliver Sacks

I was in the middle of reading him, and now he is gone.

He wrote little tidbits like this in his book, that had absolutely nothing to do with the chapter:

There is no birdsong on Guam – the island is silent,’ John said. ‘We used to have many birds, but all of them are gone – there is not a single one left. All of them have been eaten by the tree-climbing snakes.’ John had a prankish sense of humor, and I was not quite sure whether to believe this story. But when I got back to my hotel that evening, and pulled out my trusty Micronesia Handbook, I found confirmation of all that he had said. The tree-climbing snake had made its way to Guam in the hold of a navy ship toward the end of the Second World War and, finding little competition among the native fauna, had rapidly multiplied. The snakes were nocturnal, I read, and could reach six feet in length, ‘but are no danger to adults as their fangs are far back in their jaws.’ They did, however, feed on all manner of small mammals, birds, and eggs; it was this which had led to the extinction of all the birds on Guam, including a number of species unique to the island. The remaining Guam fruit bats are now in danger of vanishing. The electrical outages, I read, cost millions of dollars in damages each year.

(Island of The Colourblind)

And as someone who has a poster of the periodic table on her kitchen wall, I appreciated this sentiment from him:

I got a sudden, overwhelming sense of how startling the periodic table must have seemed to those who first saw it – chemists profoundly familiar with seven or eight chemical families, but who had never realized the basis of these families (valency), nor how all of them might be brought together into a single over-arching scheme. I wondered if they had reacted as I did to this first revelation: ‘Of course! How obvious! Why didn’t I think of it myself?’ Whether one thought in terms of the verticals or in terms of the horizontals – either way one arrived at the same grid. It was like a crossword puzzle that could be approached by either the ‘down’ or the ‘across’ clues, except that a crossword was arbitrary, a purely human construct, while the periodic table reflected a deep order in nature, for it showed all the elements arrayed in a fundamental relationship. I had the sense that it harbored a marvelous secret, but it was a cryptogram without a key – why was this relationship so? I could scarcely sleep for excitement the night after seeing the periodic table – it seemed to me an incredible achievement to have brought the whole, vast, and seemingly chaotic universe of chemistry to an all-embracing order. The first great intellectual clarifications had occurred with Lavoisier’s defining of elements, with Proust’s finding that elements combined in discrete proportions only, and with Dalton’s notion that elements had atoms with unique atomic weights. With these, chemistry had come of age, and had become the chemistry of the elements. But the elements themselves were not seen to come in any order; they could only be listed alphabetically (as Pepper did in his Playbook of Metals ) or in terms of isolated local families or groups. Nothing beyond this was possible until Mendeleev’s achievement. To have perceived an overall organization, a superarching principle uniting and relating all the elements, had a quality of the miraculous, of genius. And this gave me, for the first time, a sense of the transcendent power of the human mind, and the fact that it might be equipped to discover or decipher the deepest secrets of nature, to read the mind of God.

(Uncle Tungsten)

And this was how he remembered his mother when she passed away:

It especially moved me to see so many of my mother’s patients and students and how they remembered her so vividly and humorously and affectionately—to see her through their eyes, as physician and teacher and storyteller. As they spoke of her, I was reminded of my own identity as a physician, teacher, and storyteller and how this had brought us closer, adding a new dimension to our relationship, over the years. It made me feel too that I must complete Awakenings as a last tribute to her. A strange sense of peace and sobriety, and of what really mattered, a sense of the allegorical dimensions of life and death, grew stronger and stronger in me with each day of the mourning.My mother’s death was the most devastating loss of my life—the loss of the deepest and perhaps, in some sense, the realest relation of my life.

(On The Move: A Life)

That’s how I’ll remember him, the way he wrote it himself, physician, teacher and storyteller.


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