Divining the Catalyst: A Response to the Writing of Oliver Sacks

I have always been a front-row student. Drawn to the first row of desks or tables by temperament and visual disability, I preferred to be as close to the teacher—and presumably the action—as possible. I never questioned this self-placement: to me, the front row was a reverential space, sanctified by scholarship and enthusiasm.

Plus, the first row of desks was always easiest for me to find. Before I started traveling with a guide dog, I’d use my white cane to locate an empty seat. I hated threading through crowded aisles scattered with students’ bags. I could see the outline of the first row of desks—usually unoccupied—and claim my place without tangling my cane in the straps of someone’s lumpy Jansport backpack.

On the third day of my Honors Chemistry class, I was a curious sophomore, sitting in the first seat of the second line of desks nearest the door. Slightly offset from the teacher’s large desk on its elevated platform, my seat offered a clear view of the class’s main attraction: the magic tricks performed by our teacher. For the first two days, she had confined herself to modest tricks—minor explosions and colored flames. She had even made water disappear with the use of three Solo cups and the powder from inside a disposable diaper. So she met our cries for more tricks with a quiet smile and a phrase that complicated my front-row-philia: “All right, I will bring out the shatter shield.”

Two years later, the same teacher tried to begin our AP Chemistry class with more conventional housekeeping—going through the syllabus and explaining her policies. But we protested; most of us remembered the earlier displays of magic and were excited to see the more advanced versions. As she explained how each trick worked, she continually posed the question, “Is magic chemistry, or is chemistry magic?”

There were many things I loved about those chemistry classes—from the newspaper-y smell of our carbon lab notebooks to the balancing of redox reactions and the intense calculations of dimensional analysis. Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic about the academic side of the course, I found the laboratory experience to be painful and frustrating. I say this because I never experienced parallel frustrations in my biology courses.

Though my instructor showed me the equipment with painstaking care, many of our experiments were inaccessible to me. I learned to distinguish round-bottomed flasks from erlenmeyer flasks and flat-bottomed flasks. I learned to identify the parts of a Bunsen burner, the pipettes, and the clamps. But I could not read the measurement lines on the flasks to report a precise meniscus. I could not identify the colors of the various flames during the flame test lab. And I had to rely on my partner’s goodwill during the tie-dye lab as I squirted purple and red coloring onto my scrunched and bundled T-shirt. (Incidentally, the tie-dye shirt came out rather well.)

So I took notes while my lab partner carried out the kinesthetic tasks. And perhaps because my experience of chemistry was chiefly literary, I was primed to value the first chemistry memoir I read.

For extra credit, my teacher invited us to report on Oliver Sacks’s book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. The book detailed Sacks’s intense love of chemistry, his fascination with the periodic table, his forays into the lab, and his family’s relationship with science. But Uncle Tungsten also offered something new to my 16-year-old self (in love with Jane Austen and James Joyce). It offered a glimpse into what nonfiction beyond the textbook could be—an organic wandering through memory in which discoveries are unbound by time. I realized that revelation was nonlinear, that truth didn’t always march so neatly across the page.

Unlike our conventional and unappealing course texts—and the labs that accompanied them—Sacks’s memoir made room for the student I was. I could understand and revel in his experience without feeling like an inadequate scientist. In the lab, I squinted at measurement lines on graduated cylinders, always conscious that such visual data was beyond my grasp. But in the pages of the memoir—where phenomena were rendered accessible through text—I could calculate, realize, conclude. I could bring all I had learned into one powerful, imaginative space.

Though I’ve read several of Sacks’s articles and books, I resonate most with his writings on chemistry and music. I adored Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, for its discussion of art and science, mystery and measurement.

These two books, more than Sacks’s other work, helped me come to terms with what felt like insurmountable exclusion from the scientific world. As a high school student, I was just beginning to understand disability rights: I didn’t know what I was allowed to ask for and what I was expected to put up with. Now I know several blind people pursuing careers in the sciences. Lab equipment can be adapted, colors identified. But when I was taking these courses, that terrain seemed so daunting. And in the same way that I coped with the difficulty of sightreading piano music, I did what I knew would work: I turned to writing.

In July, Dr. Sacks published a piece in The New York Times called “My Periodic Table”; in this piece, he explored the elements that made his life worthwhile—literal chemical elements and different human experiences, like a night filled with stars. Sacks wrote:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s           words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

When I imagine my own night filled with stars, I realize that most of the lights have been literary—voices outside of time that I return to again and again. It is easier to be in love with the voices that are already gone—Austen, Joyce, Woolf, and most recently, Seamus Heaney. It is more heartbreaking to feel a voice moving out of our finite, knowable space, because it seems that all their brilliance will cross over, become unfathomable. There is something so necessary and vital in the pieces of life we can touch and smell, like the rough carbon pages of lab notebooks.

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