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The Man Who Turned Life Into Magic

Oliver Sacks in 2007.
Adam Scourfield
Oliver Sacks in 2007.

I was shocked and saddened to read Oliver Sacks' New York Times op-ed last Thursday where he told of his terminal liver cancer from a previous, rare ocular melanoma. As of Wednesday evening, there were 808 comments from readers, all deeply touched by Oliver's humanity. He deserves no less.

Through his writings and lectures, Oliver illuminates — as no other — the darker side of the mind, the often strange neurological pathologies that afflict so many in so many different ways, rendering them unable to function like the rest of us. These are people imprisoned within their own selves, their humanity choked, begging to be recognized. People whose conditions are so odd and rare that other medical professionals would not know what to do.

"The truth is that most practicing physicians have, apart from their broad medical training, little in-depth knowledge of many conditions, especially those which are considered rare, and thus not worthy of much time in medical school," Oliver wrote in The Mind's Eye. The more reason, he would argue, to listen to their stories, take them down, and use them as their path to healing or, at least, to a path toward awareness of their condition and hence empathy and respect.

We are a story, each of us. And a story with no listener is the same as silence, as oblivion. Some stories are harder to listen to, or can't be listened to in ordinary ways, and, so, take a very special kind of listener. We are blessed to have Oliver as a listener, at once scribe and bard of the human condition.

Oliver Sacks is a rare soul-reader among us, a golden heart that beats in resonance with an enlightened intellect and a refinement of feeling that finds the humanity cloistered in the deepest recesses of a damaged life. The stories he tells are the stories of his patients, but also his own; he knows and tells us, beautifully, how each experience touches and transforms his own, how each tale he narrates becomes part of his own narrative, his own life story. In this, and in writings such as Uncle Tungsten or Altered States, his New Yorker essay on hallucinatory drugs, we learn that to Oliver life is a grand experiment of the human condition, an experiment that can only bear fruit if we have the courage to engage fully with it. Oliver is the bravest man I know.

I met Oliver in the late 1990s in São Paulo, at the home of our then editor Luiz Schwarcz. He was immediately curious about this Brazilian theoretical physicist who lived in the U.S. and wondered about the origin of the universe, while also writing for the general public about science, philosophy and religion. Being a rare example of a scientist-humanist, he took me under his wing as an equal, deeply honoring me with his humility. "Please come visit me in New York," he invited. And so I did. Since then, we have maintained a steady, if not dense, correspondence the old way. "I don't do email," he told me. So, I'd get these rare envelopes from the great man, full of encouragement and praise, always affectionately signed, "Best Wishes, Ollie."

I'd step into his place at Horatio Street as if into a temple. Books everywhere, piles of papers scattered about, and there was Oliver with his slippers on, sparks in his eyes, hardly able to contain his excitement at the simple pleasure of conversing about fundamental questions of physics, the universe, life, the mind, and his projects and latest ideas. In his op-ed, he writes of himself: "I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasm, and extreme immoderation in all passions."

We are all deeply grateful for your immoderate passions, for the honor of sharing time "on this beautiful planet" with such a human as yourself. It "has been an enormous privilege and adventure." What you have created will remain, touching the lives of many generations to come, illuminating their lives with your wisdom and humanity.

(Our own Alva Nöe wrote a tribute to Oliver here at 13.7 on the occasion of his 80th birthday.)

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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