Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
Talking about religion and politics seems to drain Sacks, but when the topic returns to chemistry, his eyes regain their twinkle. A self-styled chemistry “evangelist,” he takes it upon himself to supply his many young relatives and friends with periodic tables. “Uncle Oliver has become like Uncle Tungsten that way,” he muses. Noah wants to know if he still maintains a home lab. He doesn’t, but can’t resist the occasional home chemistry experiment. “Kate came in one day and found me melting some sulfur in the microwave,” he recalls. “It caught fire and the whole place was full of sulfur dioxide.”
The phone rings in the outer office, jarring us all. Sacks, hoping it might be Kate reporting from the emergency room, leaps to answer. But it is clearly not his beloved assistant. When he reenters his office, he is flustered and cursing. A reporter who recently spoke with him about Musicophilia wants to re-interview him because her recorder didn’t work. “I can’t remember what I’ve said once I’ve said it!” he tells us, astonished at her audacity. He glances over at me to make sure I am taking notes, which I am. Then Sacks looks warily in the direction of Noah and our recorder.
“The fact is that the basic skills of journalism, which are pen and paper, are being forgotten,” he mutters. “I’m very concerned about the disappearance of skills which have survived for a long while. My father was very good at percussing the chest and listening, and could learn a huge amount from this,” he continues. “It is important to know the old way of examining someone, the hands-on way.”
This leads him to an account of a recent conference on the subject of communications. “I’m shy in panels and conferences, but occasionally I want to say something, and at one point someone said that his little daughter is online all the while—I broke in and said that I was horrified. ‘Doesn’t she ever read a book?’ I asked.”
One word, he says, was missing from the discussion. “The word was solitude,” Sacks says. “Everyone was speaking about speed and the Web and bandwidth and information transfer, but so much of the world’s real work depends on solitary thinking and depth.”
The phone rings again. This time it is Kate. “Are you in a lot of pain?” he asks her. She is but even so, ever his caretaker, tells him it is time to ask us to leave. As soon as he hangs up the phone, he does so. “I’m a babbler,” he says, apologetically, adding that the Babylon Talmud is sometimes called the Talmud Babli.
He stands up and walks to the door, without giving me time to gather my notes or for Noah to disentangle the wires of the recorder. “Sorry to be so abrupt,” he says as we scramble to follow. “Every minute I spend with you keeps me away from my work.” The door closes behind us, ending a glorious morning with Uncle Xenon, a truly noble element.