September 22, 2017

Wiki Friday: Oliver Sacks and the periodic table

Oliver Sacks

"a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine," says the New York Times.

Was a member of the Fern Society of New York.

Swam almost every day of his life.

During medical school in California, became a bodybuilder and held a record for weightlifting.

Did a lot of drugs, and actually had an amphetamine-induced epiphany about what to do next: become a chronicler of neurological diseases and oddities.

I had heard the name–Oliver Sacks–but only became interested in the person through the wonderful book Insomniac City, which I learned about through the Brain Pickings essay. The book is really beautiful. Bill Hayes writes about everything with tenderness, but in particular his romance with Oliver Sacks, and I like how he moves between clips of journals and essay-like chapters, sprinkling in his own black and white photos from New York.

Bill often quotes Oliver, or writes close observations:
“I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins…”

“I say I love writing, but really it is thinking I love–that rush of thoughts–new connection in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” O smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”
Oliver often said that but was his favourite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.
“But” is my favourite word, too, when I am learning a new language. Even uttered on its own, it shows that you have a second thought about the topic. I think it was my friend Liam who quipped that if I had a drink named after me, it would be “mixed feelings.” This word indeed flips a coin.

When Oliver Sacks is on his literal deathbed, breathing his final breaths in his New York apartment, Bill Hayes takes the following excellent actions:
I looked around the room, crowded with bedsheets, towels, Depends, pads, medications, an oxygen tank and other medical equipment, and I began clearing it out, all of it. First, I brought in stacks of all of O’s books, cleared a bedside table, and put them there. I brought in a cycad plant and a fern. Kate joined me, and we cleared more space, making room on another table for some of O’s beloved minerals and elements, his fountain pens, a ginkgo fossil, his pocket watch. Elsewhere, a few books by his heroes–Darwin, Freud, Luria, Edelman, Thom Gunn–and photos–his father, Auden, his mother as a girl with her seventeen siblings, his aunts and uncles, his brothers. We brought in flowers, candles.
Cycads, not to be confused with palms

A cycad plant, a ginkgo fossil, books, minerals and elements... better objects than an oxygen tank.

This takes me to the periodic table of elements, with which Oliver Sacks was fascinated. As someone with a tendency toward structure and compartmentalization, I suspected I would understand this interest, given more insight.

The periodic table

Ok, in truth Wikipedia gave me nothing to get excited about.

No meditations, poetry, or art related to the topic.

I had to go back to Oliver Sacks, in this Radiolabs podcast about the table.

My first love of chemistry had to do with the sensuous…

The elements themselves are organized in a very special way.

Oliver talks about Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian scientist and inventor, shuffling cards with the elements on them–shuffling, shuffling, shuffling, for years, trying to find a pattern. He has a dream, and awakes, "with a vision of the period table," which he, "wrote on the back of an envelope."

Oliver asks:

Is the periodic table a discovery or an invention?

Is it God’s abacus?
Great questions.

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