Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The scientist for science-haters

Oliver Sacks

Photo of Oliver Sacks by Maria Popova, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

Perhaps, for my first post as a fully-fledged fox, it is a little counter-productive to talk about outliers in my bookish tastes, but when I mulled over what to write about as I transferred from guest to resident, I thought about the phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule’. And then I thought about Oliver Sacks.

Literary taste is a flexible animal, of course, and there are few of us who read exclusively one variety of novel – I love my old-ladies-drinking-tea variety of book, but am equally at home in a modernist novel or a gothic mystery. But one shelf in the bookshop which I’m unlikely to wend my way towards is the one labelled ‘science’. Despite growing up in an extended family of mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, and the like, I have rarely felt the remotest interest in science, loathed biology at school, and have certainly seldom opened a book on the topic – unlike my father who once, on a family holiday, brought only an enormous tome called The History of Science. As I would have put it in my teenage vernacular, what a snooze cruise.

And yet – here’s the secret. There is a scientific writer for those of us who don’t like science. Not only is Oliver Sacks an outlier in my personal tastes, he seems to be an outlier in the world of science writers (is ‘science writers’ a term? Well, it is now.) That is – he’s the scientist for people who hate science. (For those of you who read my blog at Stuck-in-a-Book, this will come as no surprise – and, I warn you, some of what follows has already appeared over there.)

A bit of intro for Dr. Sacks – firstly and most importantly, he is not to be confused with Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel in classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers. “Who would do that?” you might ask – to which I would answer, my friend who applied for psychology at Oxford University, in her personal statement. (She did get in, so no harm done.) Sacks is (to quote his Wikipedia page) a neurologist, psychologist, and amateur chemist. The last of these sounds a little worrying – when I clicked through to discover whether amateurism was, indeed, a branch of chemistry, but it turns out to mean precisely what one would assume; someone who indulges in chemistry as a hobby. In its circular way, Wikipedia lists notable amateur chemists as Oliver Sacks (well, yes) and Edward Elgar. The more you know.

But I have wandered from the point (that will happen); Oliver Sacks is known chiefly as a neurologist who writes accessible accounts of his scientific career and the patients whom he has encountered in that time. His work ranges from neurological damage to sight (in The Mind’s Eye) and hearing (in Seeing Voices) to the treatment of patients waking from encephalitis lethargica after several decades (Awakenings) and writings on music (Musicophilia), migraine (er, Migraine), and his own childhood memoirs (Uncle Tungsten). But the first of his books I read was the one you’ve probably heard about – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (published in the year I was born, 1985). It’s certainly a great title, and that’s probably what made me pick it up.

And, reader, I was hooked.  The accounts were themselves interesting – a woman who can only see the left-hand side of any object; twins who can identify the day of the week for any date over a span of 8000 years; the man, indeed, who mistook his wife for a hat – but bare facts alone wouldn’t have captivated me.  His most recent book was published last year, and is called Hallucinations – and might just be the best of his that I’ve read.  There are so many types of hallucinations that Sacks has witnessed in decades of being a neurologist, encountering hundreds of people and hearing about thousands from his colleagues. This book just includes the ones who gave him permission. It would necessitate typing out the whole book to tell you all the illustrations he gives, but they range from fascinating accounts of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (basically seeing hallucinations, often highly detailed, for long or short periods) to hallucinated smells, sounds, and even a chapter on hallucinating doppelgängers. Again, in the hands of any other scientist, these accounts would have interested me briefly, but (as I have discovered in trying to read a book about synaesthesia – a topic which fascinates me – by another author) would have palled quickly.  It takes a special sort of scientist to make science interesting for the layman, without sacrificing the diligence and rigour required of the field.

There are two reasons that Sacks is the scientist for science-haters, and neither are connected with the facts and accounts he chooses to include. He is so wonderful a writer because he is primarily a storyteller, and because he is so obviously a compassionate human being. His storytelling abilities are obvious as soon as one opens any of his books, which are greater page-turners than most detective novels, even without a whodunnit lurking at the end.  The scientific details are always there, and he doesn’t dumb down – but he also doesn’t make us read research papers.  Instead, the lives of his patients are fully realised, and he makes as much of their marriages or their resilience or their disposition as he does of their case notes.  Each chapter in each book is a little short story, with beginning and middle and, when necessary, end.  Sacks can craft moving vignettes from facts and figures, and almost every short story writer I’ve read could pick up tips from him.

Many of Sacks’ reviews describe him as ‘humane’, which I suppose he is – but the word feels a little dispassionate. Sacks, on the other hand, is fundamentally compassionate. He never treats or describes people as case studies. The accounts he gives are not scientific outlines, interested only in neurological details, but mini-biographies filled with human detail, humour, and respect. Here’s an example from Hallucinations of all three factors combining:

Gertie C. had a half-controlled hallucinosis for decades before she started on L-dopa – bucolic hallucinations of lying in a sunlit meadow or floating in a creek near her childhood home. This changed when she was given L-dopa and her hallucinations assumed a social and sometimes sexual character. When she told me about this, she added, anxiously, “You surely wouldn’t forbid a friendly hallucination to a frustrated old lady like me!” I replied that if her hallucinations had a pleasant and controllable character, they seemed rather a good idea under the circumstances. After this, the paranoid quality dropped away, and her hallucinatory encounters became purely amicable and amorous. She developed a humour and tact and control, never allowing herself a hallucination before eight in the evening and keeping its duration to thirty or forty minutes at most. If her relatives stayed too late, she would explain firmly but pleasantly that she was expecting “a gentleman visitor from out of town” in a few minutes’ time, and she felt he might take it amiss if he was kept waiting outside. She now receives love, attention, and invisible presents from a hallucinatory gentleman who visits faithfully each evening.

And with this respect and kindness definitely comes a sense of humour – the sort of humour exemplified by many of the people he met. This detail, in a footnote, was wonderful:

Robert Teunisse told me how one of his patients, seeing a man hovering outside his nineteenth-floor apartment, assumed this was another one of his hallucinations. When the man waved at him, he did not wave back. The “hallucination” turned out to be his window washer, considerably miffed at not having his friendly wave returned.

He seems to be the same in person. In the Sacks book I read most recently, The Mind’s Eye, he notes as an aside that, to help a patient with posterior cortical atrophy (which comes with various visual disturbances, but patients can retain the ability to detect movement and colour) “fearing we might be separated, I had dressed entirely in red for our visit, knowing that it would allow her to spot me instantly if we did.”  How many researchers would have troubled themselves in this way? How many human beings, for that matter?

Of course, many people reading this will already have an interest in science, and there is a world of apt books for you.  But if, like me, the very word ‘science’ sends back horrible memories of memorising the water cycle or being instructed to combine things over Bunsen burners, then fear not – there is a man for you.  Pick up The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, or Hallucinations, or any of Oliver Sacks’ other works, and join this card-carrying science-avoider in learning to love science.

Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1985. 233pp
ISBN: 978-0330294911

Oliver Sacks: Hallucinations. London: Picador, 2012. 336pp
ISBN: 978-1447208266

Simon Thomas is the newest Book Fox, and has blogged since 2007 at Stuck-in-a-Book.

6 comments on “The scientist for science-haters

  1. Hilary
    October 17, 2013

    I really enjoyed this overview of Oliver Sacks, Simon – thank you! You’ve reminded me that I thought ‘The Man Who…’ was exceptional and wonderful when it first came out (I was a fully-grown librarian, more’s the pity, not in my cradle), and made me regret that I’d never followed up reading it with others of his works – must remedy that. I can relate to what you say about reading books with a science base, and I think I feared that this was his book for the uninitiated but the rest would revert to being ‘too hard’.

    But you put your finger on what helps the non-scientist to hang on tight: if the writer is a consummate storyteller, it works, and even some superficial knowledge can sometimes stick. I treasure books with a scientific background that have worked for me, such as Simon Singh’s ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ and can see that it is the narrative drive that has pulled me through. Maybe this thread can be a place to swap Science Book for Non-Scientists recommendations – I must go and look at my bookshelves.

    The important thing for me is that these books don’t try too hard to make science look easy, or, heaven help us, fun – I feel talked down to. My recollection of Oliver Sacks is that this is the last thing he’d do.

    Oh, and I just love the man for the line that a patient’s agreeable hallucinations ‘seemed rather a good idea in the circumstances’. If anyone could make me feel envious of a neurological condition, it is Oliver Sacks – such empathy.

  2. Liz at Libro
    October 17, 2013

    I love Sachs for the same reasons as you do. I have found a few other writers who write as well on science (including a good one on synaesthesia) but only a few. Lovely to see him talked about, too.

  3. gaskella
    October 17, 2013

    I’m a Sacks fan too. Most recently I acquired his autobiography Uncle Tungsten, looking forward to that hugely, having read your wonderful post. Science writers that can engage non-scientists are few and far between.

  4. Peter Thomas (Simon's dad)
    October 17, 2013

    May I recommend John Gribbin’s excellent “Science: A History” despite claims (see above) that it is enormous book it is Penguin paperback of some 600+ pages.. Gribbin fulfills Hilary desire that “the writer is a consummate storyteller”. All you ever wanted to know about science (except he doesn’t mention Mr Sachs I’m afraid) and were afraid to ask.
    Great to see you writing so eloquently about science Simon – many books available at home.

  5. Dark Puss
    October 18, 2013

    Uncle Tungsten is an excellent book to follow on with if you are already won over by Sachs. Intrigued by the comment from Hilary concerning “fun”. I know what you mean (in terms of patronising the reader) but while science is indeed hard it IS also tremendous fun too! I try quite hard to convey that aspect of my professional life as well as the intellectual challenge and reward; perhaps it is in fact off-putting?

  6. Nicola
    October 18, 2013

    I’m a huge Sachs fan – my favourite is Musicophilia. Fantastic to see him being appreciated.

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2013 by in Entries by Simon, Non-fiction: science.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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