Visit our text-only page

npr

news

archives

your turn

your stations

shop

about npr

contact npr

Browse Topics

Services

Programs

Portait of the Scientist as a Young Man
Oliver Sacks on the People, Places and Ideas that Shaped Him

Oliver Sacks interview Listen as Scott Simon talks to Oliver Sacks

Nov. 10, 2001 -- Some people are blessed with the ability to meld art and science. Oliver Sacks is one of those people.

As he tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, "a lot of science is stories." Sacks has told his share of stories, through such renowned works as The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Awakenings.

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks' new memoir is titled Uncle Tungsten.
Photo: Elena Seibert

Sacks learned early that he wasn't cut out for cold, experimental science alone. His new memoir, Uncle Tungsten tells the story of a young man surrounded by family members who were scientists and doctors -- every one of them intensely passionate about their work.

His mother, a surgeon and professor of anatomy, hoped her son would follow in her footsteps. When Sacks was 14, she took him to the Royal Free Hospital in London to watch -- and take part in -- the dissection of a human corpse.

"I was very shocked and frightened," he says. "I had never seen a corpse before. It was suggested that I dissect a leg, and the professor said, 'here's a nice leg for you'."

Although Sacks had dissected plenty of worms and frogs before, this business of cutting up a human body was altogether different. And more disturbing for him, the body was that of a girl his own age. "I wanted to ask, what happened? How did she die? How did she find her way here?"

Still, beneath the horror, there was fascination. "Sometimes, when I looked at the anatomy of the knee and so forth, I could enjoy the beauty of it -- the way my mother did," he says.

He carried that fascination into adulthood, and made it the cornerstone of a career of making neuroscience interesting and accessible to a general audience. "I think I'm intrigued by the tissues of the mind, and social tissues," he says.

Only someone with a true emotional investment in science could wax so poetically about, of all things, the periodic table of the elements. "I never tire of looking at the periodic table," he says. From it, he gets "a sort of ecstasy."

When he first saw one as a child, it was a revelation that gave him "a tremendous sense of neatness and of order in the universe.

"And I could hardly see the periodic table as a human construct. I thought it was sort of inscribed in the heavens. For me, it's always been the exemplar of science, and of scientific beauty. "


Other Resources

•The official Oliver Sacks Web site.