Professor Oliver Sacks’ endearing humour ignited rumbles of laughter in his audience. His warmth, humanity and fascination with the comically absurd, are evident in his books, such as ‘The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’.
Reading from his autobiography, ‘Uncle Tungsten’, he described growing up in a large Jewish family of doctors and scientists. Among these, Uncle Dave, who manufactured tungsten filaments for light bulbs, was‘the human face of science and technology’.
The young Oliver was fascinated by metals: his mother’s wedding ring, which she explained, while he held it; his brothers’ magnets; the luminous dials on clocks and the electrical charge of amber. Evacuated to school at six, when war began, he took refuge in the beauty of numbers, which he realised were ‘absolute in a chaotic world, and in knowing that the headmaster who was beating him, was merely ‘a vertical collection of atoms’.
The book contains comical accounts of schoolboy chemistry: explosions, a charred lawn and ‘a mushroom cloud’ of toxic gas. We laughed helplessly at his accidental devastation of the young Jonathan Miller’s parents’ basement by exploding jars of decomposing cuttlefish.
Like his Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks’ magical storytelling gives Science a ‘human face’.