From the Writers & Company archives: Oliver Sacks

This summer, the Writers & Company weekly podcast will feature some of the best shows from the show's archives. We hope you'll enjoy this opportunity to hear these programs that haven't been available as a podcast before.

Every week in July and August, CBC Books will bring you the Writers & Company podcast, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

This week's Writers & Company podcast features Eleanor's 2001 conversation with Oliver Sacks about his memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

This interview originally aired on November 11, 2001.

You can listen to Writers & Company on CBC Radio One every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET and AT; 3:30 p.m. NT; 5 p.m. PT, MT and CT.


Oliver Sacks is an unusual and, in some ways, an old-fashioned man, harking back to a 19th-century humanist tradition. He was raised in a house filled with rooms and books in London — a house he loved. "It seemed like a magical house to me, although it probably seemed like a large, awkward, Edwardian house to anyone else," he told Eleanor Wachtel. It was in this house that both his parents practiced medicine, and in his 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Oliver Sacks takes his own early life as his subject, exploring his childhood via his passion for chemistry.

His family's professional life was very much part of their personal life, an intersection Sacks said was "both fascinating and perhaps slightly resented." He wasn't allowed to observe or participate in his parent's work, but remembers being "fascinated" by things like seeing violet light from under the door. "I would see all sorts of strange, disconcerting instruments," he recalled.


However, it was not then that Sacks would fall in love with science. When Sacks was six years old, he and his brother were evacuated from London, alongside thousands of other children, to escape any threat of bombings during the Second World War. He no longer understood the world and no longer believed it to be safe. He eventually came back to the city a few years later and two uncles introduced him to chemistry. It was then he became infatuated with science. "Science seemed to promise a realm of clarity, order, control and predictability significantly far from what I was then seeing as the capricious, dangerous and terrifying world of people," he said.

From there, his fascination would only grow. Prime numbers, the periodic table, evidence of God's existence — Sacks became obsessed with them all, and he discusses this at length in his book. But as with any childhood obsession, Sacks's interest in chemistry faded as he grew older. While this early interest in science heavily informed the rest of his career, Sacks believes there is a time and place when children simply grow up. "I think in all of us there is some point where the heightened, mysterious, mythical magical world of childhood gets fainter," he said. He also believes that being taught science in school affected his love affair with the subject. "What was quiet and secret and playful and adventurous became fixed and competitive and public and prosaic."

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