Workbench 05.11.2009, 10:42 AM

Oliver Sacks portrait by Doron Gild

Oliver Sacks is an acclaimed author and physician, and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

Interview by Lee Billings / Photograph by Mark Mahaney / Portrait by Doron Gild

Preserving Words

This is what my work looks like to begin with—you see these long yellow sheets, then I go over them with pens, pencils of different colors, signifying different generations. The feeling of a pen or the machine-gun-like clatter of a typewriter appeals to me. But also, I'm afraid of erasure. I'm terrified of the notion that at any moment a computer may collapse and destroy what one has done.

Periodic Gifts

I sometimes give people elements for their birthdays, so one or two things may be missing from my collection here. I'm into the heavy transition metals now, which begin with the atomic number 72 and go through 79. The hafnium isn't there anymore. I gave it to a friend for his 72nd, and I think the tantalum has to go because someone had his 73rd yesterday. And since I'm 75 now, I'm rhenium. You can see there a rhenium rod with which I stir my coffee. Rhenium is a fairly rare element, the last natural element to be discovered. You won't find rhenium rods too commonly, and I doubt if they've ever been used to stir a cup of coffee before. It's a rather noble metal, like platinum, so hopefully I won't come down with an unprecedented case of rhenium poisoning! I won't be able to get a decent specimen of 76, osmium, which is very difficult to get. Although I have a gram or so here. It's the only slightly blue metal there is. Iridium is 77, and platinum is 78, gold is 79. Recently a friend of mine had his 80th birthday. I wrote him in a letter, "I'm sorry it's 80, not 78 or 79. I enclose a bottle of mercury." He says he has a little for his health every morning.

Heavy Metal

I'm particularly fond of handling my iridium slab; I will occasionally discover it in my hand, unconsciously caressing it. Besides osmium, iridium is the densest material on this planet so it's very heavy. I've had rough isomorphs made in copper and tin, but I wanted one exactly like this in a metal that glitters in the same way but is much lighter. So at the moment I'm waiting on one cast in indium. I like very dense elements; I also like very light ones. I guess I just like improbable things and extremes. For instance, this iridium is somewhat improbable in that it's startlingly heavy. You have expectations shattered when you pick it up.

Mind's Eye

This is some reference material for a book I'm working on about aspects of vision, consisting of various essays and case histories. It will end with my own visual story, the ocular melanoma in my right eye, which now gives me a 30-degree blind spot that my brain "fills in" with background colors and patterns. The filling in with patterns is slower than colors—it takes about 20 seconds and tends to fill in from the edge, like ice crystallizing on a pond. People think sometimes I specialize in the odd. But the odd for me is a window into the normal. For example, it wouldn't occur to you that color and movement would give you a whole visual world just like this, but if something happens so that you lose stereo or color or movement you realize they all have to be treated separately, somehow orchestrated, and you really begin to get an idea of the complexity and wonder of things. As a physician I'm concerned with people's welfare and I try to help them, but I also regard diseases and damage as experiments in nature. These days, I am the subject of an experiment.

Archaic Landscapes

I very much like stromatolites, which have been around for billions of years. There's a place in Australia, Shark Bay, where they still exist. I went there, and in a little museum, they had the original of this painting, which enchanted me. This is an imagining of the Archaean era, the Earth as it was 3.5 billion years ago, with volcanoes and these cushion-like stromatolites. For some reason, it pleases me very much.

Fond Memories

Here are some of my friends, from left to right, the late Stephen J. Gould, my good friend Matthew Meselson, and Francis Crick, whom I knew well. Next to him is my oldest friend, Eric. We've known each other for 74 years. We grew up in contiguous cradles. The woman in the bathing suit is my friend Lynne Cox, who is the greatest cold-water marathon swimmer in the world. She's done the Antarctic and the Bering straits, just wearing a suit like that! In the lower center there is Linus Pauling, who was my great hero in my chemistry days. And to the left, this is Lake Titicaca, which I fell in love with and would like to retire to. It's my Shangri-La.

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