"I was probably not as concerned as I should have been," says Oliver Sacks of the unsupervised chemistry experiments he carried out in his childhood home. "My parents certainly got concerned, and once, after I filled the house with hydrogen sulfide, they sort of insisted on having a hood or a fume cover there and that I shouldn't work with such large quantities.
"They did sometimes get me to use goggles, which was unusual then and showed foresight. There was one accident which caused my brother to lose some of his eyebrows."
The practicing neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat cruises through town Wednesday to wax poetic about science and to tell tales from his latest book, 2001's Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Growing up in London during World War II, Sacks was obsessed with the magical science demonstrations his Uncle Dave, affectionately renamed Uncle Tungsten, performed at his tungsten factory for his young nephew: Uncle Tungsten smears a bar of pure aluminum with mercury, and the shiny aluminum oxidizes into nothingness in seconds. From a cabinet he withdraws a solid-platinum crucible, unscratched and gleaming after 100 years of use, thanks to the element's durability. In the book Sacks also recalls his uncle's worshipful reverence for tungsten, which is so dense that a ball of the metal "two feet across, he calculated, would weigh 5,000 pounds."
Fans of the doctor's celebrated adventures-in-bizarre-neurological-disorders books should also be pleased to learn of a recently published New Yorker article that is an extended case history "about a patient I'm very fond of who is a musician with a visual agnosia -- that's to say she sees, but she doesn't know what she's seeing," he says. "So in this way she's rather like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, but she responded to it [the ailment] in a very different way. So in a way I'm taking up an old theme, but in a very contrasting way. And I have an article in the current Natural History about the possibility of life on other planets," he adds with an embarrassed laugh.
Sacks says he's also considering book projects on two separate fascinations: aging and the strange power of music. When he's not writing or sloshing through his daily swims, he sees patients. "I have a clinic on Tuesday, and Wednesday's my hospital day and Thursday I do house calls," he says. "The article in the New Yorker is largely based on house calls -- amongst other things, it's an implicit plea for doctors to go back to doing house calls."
When the peripatetic doctor is complimented on his trademark writing style, evident in the autobiographical Uncle Tungsten, in which engaging tales are told in a sweet and gentle tone, he bridles, joking that "there are some bad things which I have reserved for Volume 2," and then laughs, his voice warm and kind once more.
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