Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
According to family lore, Sacks’s grandfathers were so Orthodox that one would wake up at night if his yarmulke slipped off his head while the other would not swim without his. Sacks himself was raised in an illustrious Jewish clan in London. His parents’ spacious house on Mapesbury Road was strictly kosher, and the family—four boys, of which he was the youngest—regularly attended shul together. But for the Sacks family, Judaism revolved around family and tradition rather than belief. As a child, he delighted in the Shema, lighting Shabbat candles with his mother, the rituals of the Seder and especially Sukkot, when the family built a Sukkah in the garden.
Although the Sacks household was always filled with cousins, uncles and aunts, some of whom wore sheitls and were, in his words, “excessively Orthodox,” the dominant culture was not of religion, but of science. Sacks’s mother Elsie was a surgeon who later specialized in gynecology and obstetrics; to teach Oliver about the brain she dissected malformed fetuses at home. His father Samuel, a popular family doctor who made house calls, had set aside his dream of becoming a neurologist. Many relatives were scientifically inclined, among them his mother’s brother Dave Landau, the eponymous Uncle Tungsten, who, in addition to his abiding interest in chemistry, owned a factory that manufactured tungsten light bulbs. The scientific streak dates back to the 17th century, when one of Sacks’ ancestors was an “alchemical rabbi,” practicing the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy that led to chemistry.
Until he was six, Oliver’s life was near perfect. But when war loomed in 1939, his parents sent him and his older brother Michael to the country to keep them safe from Luftwaffe bombs. The boys spent four years in a makeshift boarding school in the Midlands where, unbeknownst to their family, they subsisted on meager rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishments at the hands of a sadistic headmaster.
Everyone in the family survived the war, but Oliver and Michael emerged scarred. Michael eventually became psychotic, but the troubled Oliver was saved from a similar fate by the comfort he found in the visual ordering of elements that came to Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in an 1869 dream: the Periodic Table. Sacks vividly recalls the awe and reverence he felt the first time he visited the Science Museum in South Kensington after the war and saw his first representation of the Periodic Table, covering an entire wall. “The Periodic Table was an irrefutable confirmation that there was cosmic order in the universe,” he has said, adding that he identified Mendeleev with Moses “coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the periodic law.”
Encouraged by his family, he set up a home laboratory in which he found the behavior of the elements of endless interest. “First there are the qualities: the colors, the smells, the fusings, the bubblings,” he says. “Then there’s a special fascination when you find the quantitative, when you find, shall we say, 23 grams of sodium [and] 35.5 of chlorine make salt. Then there’s another grade of excitement when you think at the atomic level and realize that sodium has an extra electron which it needs to get rid of, whereas chlorine is avid to get an electron because it only has seven. The two of them meet and sodium says ‘Hey, you take it!’ and the chlorine grabs it. It’s a marriage made in heaven.”