Moment magazine editor Nadine Epstein chronicles a morning with neurologist Oliver Sacks, best known for his books The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (made into a movie starring Robin Williams). In addition to showing off curiosities tacked to his corkboard and littered across his desk, Sacks shared his love of the elements with Epstein. His favorite element is the noble gas xenon, “the first inert gas which was persuaded to combine with other elements,” Sacks says. “So at the point when someone as solitary as myself is finally tipped into relationship and community, then I feel like xenon.”
Sacks first encountered the periodic table as a young adult, during a visit to the Science Museum in South Kensington. He found the visual order of the elements comforting; “the periodic table was irrefutable confirmation that there was cosmic order in the universe,” he says. The insight lifted him up from damaging memories of his time at a makeshift boarding school, where a sadistic headmaster meted out unusual punishments that scarred Sacks’ brother and contributed to eventual psychosis.
Sacks, now atheist, was raised in an Orthodox household, and while his distaste for extremism of any kind keeps him distant from Israel, he fondly recalls spending three months there in 1955. “It was good for the xenon part of me,” he says. “It was a healthy, important experience for a solitary intellectual, pathologically shy person to work on a farm, do physical work and be in the community.”
Even though he enjoyed that period, Sacks champions solitude. “So much of the world’s real work depends on solitary thinking and depth.”