Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
At his mention of the word birds, his face saddens. “Did you read about the death of Alex, the parrot?” he asks. We haven’t, so he continues. “Alex belonged to an animal psychologist named Irene Pepperidge and was capable of amazing things,” he says, among them reasoning and a creative use of words. “Found dead in his cage. I must write to her, express my sadness. I’m not sure how one expresses consolation for the death of a parrot. But such a parrot! Such a parrot!”
Noah and I have carefully crafted questions to ask Sacks, but neither of us wants to interrupt this near-breathless show-and-tell. A fossil resting on his desk now carries him to the subject of stromatolites, colonies of photosynthetic bacteria that filled the atmosphere with oxygen three billion or so years ago. “When I get tired of the modern world, I imagine the Archaean world when stromatolites were the only signs of life,” he remarks. Stromatolites were long thought to be extinct, but luckily for Sacks, living ones were found in Australia. “I sat by them for three days, just watching them bubble oxygen, trying to form a relationship with them,” he says.
He begins to move around his office, showing us his collection of representations of the Periodic Table, including one shaped like a Hanukkah menorah that was drawn by a young correspondent. In his 2001 book, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Sacks reveals his obsession with the chemical elements, especially with heavy metals. “I feel I commune with my uranium and tungsten,” he explains.
On his desk lie actual chunks of elements in all shapes and sizes. He sits in his swivel chair and hands us a small tablet of gold to caress. Other metals follow. “When people have birthdays, I give them elements,” he says as we take turns holding each specimen. “Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.’ I’m waiting for one elderly friend to be 83 so I can give him some bismuth.” For his own 65th birthday, Sacks had balloons filled with xenon (though it is element #54), which is five times denser than air. “I loved these balloons,” he says. “One normally thinks of balloons going up, but these balloons came down and fell on the ground like cushions.”
Sacks tries not to discriminate among elements any more than he would pick favorites among godchildren, but he can’t hide his affection for noble gases, formerly known as inert gases, and for element #54 in particular. “I’m rather fond of xenon,” he admits, “partly because it’s so rare, partly because its name means stranger. But specifically, it was the first inert gas which was persuaded to combine with other elements. So at the point when someone as solitary as myself is finally tipped into relationship and community, then I feel like xenon.”