Oliver Sacks

I’ve long been an admirer of Oliver Sacks — see, for instance, my post on Musicophilia — but it was his recent announcement that he is fatally ill that led me to want to read more than just that book and the two others that I had read earlier (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and A Leg to Stand On). I started with his fascinating two-part memoir, which I couldn’t put down, and then listened to the audiobook version of Hallucinations, which was equally fascinating.

The two-part memoir consists of a 2001 volume, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, followed by On the Move, which Sacks published just this year. Both of these books typify his combination of the personal and the scientific. Uncle Tungsten, as the subtitle suggests, deals in part with Sacks’s childhood fascination with chemistry, which was aided and abetted by his uncle in particular but by the rest of his medico-scientific family as well. But it also deals with his traumatic childhood as a Jewish child in World War II London. These two strands are inextricably interwoven, making a seamless whole rather than a two-part autobiography. In the second volume, On the Move, Sacks refers  back to his childhood from time to time but primarily focuses on his young-adulthood, especially his early years as a neurologist, motorcyclist, and champion weight-lifter. (Quite a combination for a nice Jewish boy!) As a former but unrepentant drug user, he presents himself in a way that might surprise many readers who think of him as a dispassionate scientist, but keep in mind that he is equal parts scientist and story-teller. The stories are true, but they are still stories. I highly recommend both volumes; read them in order.

I have others on reserve at the library, particularly the well-known Awakenings, but I am currently in the middle of The Island of the Colorblind, a slim account bound together with Cycad Island. In typical Sacks style, he investigates colorblindness with scientific doggedness and personal involvement. As a reader, you always feel that you are there with him. I’ll write more about these books and others by Sacks later on.

Although Sacks writes fascinating material about neurology, and more broadly about science in general, and even more broadly about human beings, I had never connected him with math teaching — until, that is, a great post in the wonderful Math with Bad Drawings. The author of that site, Ben no-last-name-given, makes the following connection: He is…

struck by how teachers and doctors both feel a crucial tension, confronting the same fundamental choice in how to define our professional selves. Am I a narrow specialist, applying my expertise to address a specific need of the pupil or patient?

Do follow the link, and read it all carefully. What Ben writes resonates so deeply with how I feel about teaching math. I’m going to go read it again.

Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning