Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

06 JULY, 2015

The Art of Biophilia: Extraordinary Mosaics Incorporating Earth’s Most Colorful Creatures

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A mesmerizing celebration of “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm popularized the word biophilia as a term for a positive psychological state of being. Literally translated as “love of life,” it is more vibrantly captured in Fromm’s own translation as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive… the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Many decades later, the great Mary Oliver — whose poetry is among humanity’s highest celebrations of biophilia — would come to call this feeling the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

That passionate love of aliveness and that exulted awareness of the citizenry of all beings is what artist, designer, and photographer Christopher Marley captures in Biophilia (public library) — an exquisite collection of his artwork incorporating various life-forms, from insects to reptiles to marine creatures. A modern-day Ernst Haeckel of photographic art, Marley painstakingly arranges his specimens into mesmerizing patterns and stages them for individual portraits that reveal the dazzling grandeur of these humble creatures, from butterflies that would’ve made Nabokov proud to fish that outshine the greatest natural history illustrations.

Chrysina Prism (France, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Honduras, Australia, Tanzania, Borneo)

Cerulean Butterflies (Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Irian, Sulawesi, France)

Urchin Spheres (Thailand, Philippines, United States, Mexico)

Tropical Fish Mosaic (Worldwide)

Marley, a self-described “chronically afflicted biophiliac,” writes:

It is our biophilia that causes us to find so much beauty and satisfaction in nature. We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us.

[…]

It is a symbiotic relationship. The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return, just as we involuntarily develop love for those people we truly understand and serve. As with all ordained goodness, the more we give, the more we receive.

That goodness permeates Marley’s work. After growing up in a family of hunters, he developed an aversion to killing any creature — even an insect — and spent years developing ethical, sustainable ways of collecting and preserving the specimens he uses in his artwork, working with a worldwide network of researchers, citizen scientists, and institutions.

Aesthetica Sphere (Worldwide species)

A century and a half after Emerson contemplated how beauty bewitches the human spirit, asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Marley makes infinitely interesting — or, rather, illuminates the inherent interestingness of — various species with which we share our shimmering world but which we, blinded by the momentum of our prejudices and phobias, ordinarily consider ugly or unremarkable. He uses beauty — “the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” per Emerson — as a tool of translation, shifting our frame of reference from one of antipathy or apprehension to one of appreciation and even affection.

Marley writes:

I have found that when my subjects are meticulously composed, it makes the translation more intelligible for the public at large, just as random music notes, once properly orchestrated, can enter the heart and sway it almost against our volition. Once an appreciation for the aesthetics of insects is born, it is amazing how quickly old prejudiced and stereotypes fall away. When people begin to see beauty where they had previously known only a mundane, distasteful, or even frightening world of arcane organisms, positive changes in their perceptions of arthropods as a whole are sure to follow.

[…]

If the work I do provides no other benefit than to kindle a new appreciation of insects (and any other creatures that evoke trepidation in the human heart), that is enough for me. It is the primary reason why I do what I do: because it brings people — myself and others — joy.

The joy his work brings is of the most colorful, ebullient kind — the kind that emanates an exuberant celebration of biodiversity and an invitation for us to belong to this world more fully, calling to mind Mary Oliver’s unforgettable verse: “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”

Fulgens Prism (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan)

Urchin Spheres Mosaic (Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, United States)

Feather Mosaic (Worldwide)

Cretaceous Ammonite Study (Madagascar)

Green Tree Python (Australia)

Preserved Octopus (Atlantic Ocean)

Elegans Prism (Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia)

Complement Biophilia with Susan Middleton’s breathtaking photographs of marine invertebrates, then revisit the curious cultural history of thinking with animals.

All images: © 2015 Christopher Marley courtesy of Abrams Books

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03 JULY, 2015

The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

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How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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24 JUNE, 2015

Simone Weil on Science, Quantum Theory, and Our Spiritual Values

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“When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”

Many decades before Rebecca Goldstein, one of the most compelling philosophers and scientific thinkers of our time, examined how Einstein and Gödel’s work on relativity rattled our understanding of existence, her twentieth-century counterpart — the brilliant French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — probed the subject with extraordinary intellectual elegance in an invigorating essay titled “Reflections on Quantum Theory.” Originally written the year before Weil’s death and later included in the out-of-print posthumous 1968 collection On Science, Necessity and the Love of God (public library), the essay considers how the advent of two theories — relativity (“a very simple theory, so long as one does not try to understand it”) and quantum mechanics — ripped our understanding of the world asunder, opening up a massive abyss between “science as it had been understood ever since ancient Greece” and modern science.

After a swift primer on the evolution of science from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Planck, Weil turns to the key culprit in this major rift between classical and contemporary science — our increasing and, she admonishes, increasingly dangerous reliance on mathematical expression as the most accurate expression of reality, flattening and making artificially linear the dimensional and messy relationships of which reality itself is woven:

What makes the abyss between twentieth-century science and that of previous centuries is the different role of algebra. In physics algebra was at first simply a process for summarizing the relations, established by reasoning based on experiment, between the ideas of physics; an extremely convenient process for the numerical calculations necessary for their verification and application. But its role has continually increased in importance until finally, whereas algebra was once the auxiliary language and words the essential one, it is now exactly the other way round. There are even some physicists who tend to make algebra the sole language, or almost, so that in the end, an unattainable end of course, there would be nothing except figures derived form experimental measurements, and letters, combined in formulae. Now, ordinary language and algebraic language are not subject to the same logical requirement; relations between ideas are not fully represented by relations between letters; and, in particular, incompatible assertions may have equational equivalents which are by no means incompatible. When some relations between ideas have been translated into algebra and the formulae have been manipulated solely according to the numerical data of the experiment and the laws proper to algebra, results may be obtained which, when retranslated into spoken language, are a violent contradiction of common sense.

Weil argues that this creates an incomplete and, in its incompleteness, illusory representation of reality — even when it bisects the planes of mathematical data and common sense, such science leaves out the unquantifiable layer of meaning:

If the algebra of physicists gives the impression of profundity it is because it is entirely flat; the third dimension of thought is missing.

That third dimension is that of meaning — one concerned with notions like “the human soul, freedom, consciousness, the reality of the external world.” (Three decades later, Hannah Arendt — another of the twentieth century’s most piercing and significant minds — would memorably contemplate the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the former being the material of science and the latter of philosophy.)

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilbert, an allegorical primer on quantum mechanics inspired by 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But most perilous of all, Weil argues, is our tendency to mistake the findings of science for objectivity and capital-T Truth, forgetting that it is scientists who make science — and scientists are human, a product of their time, beholden to their era’s values and to their own subjective impressions of truth. She cautions:

Scientific theories pass away as men’s fashions did in the seventeenth century; the Louis XIII style of dress disappeared when the last of the old men who had been young during Louis XIII’s reign were dead… Science is voiceless; it is the scientists who talk. And what they say is certainly not independent of time.

Weil argues that much of the subjectivity, which robs science of the necessary largeness in explaining the world in its full dimensions, is due to a certain scientific tribalism — scientists’ tendency to confine themselves to small groups that study only small subsets of the larger whole, with little or no cross-pollination between these tribes:

The villagers seldom leave the village; many scientists have limited and poorly cultivated minds apart from their specialty or, if a scientist is interested in something outside his specific work, it is very unusual for him to relate that interest, in his mind, with his interest in science. The inhabitants of the village are studious, brilliant, exceptionally gifted; but all the same, up to an age when mind and character are for the most part already formed, they are lycée students among the other and are taught from mediocre textbooks. No one has ever been particularly concerned to develop their critical spirit. At no point in their lives are they specifically trained to put the pure love of truth above other motives… Among the inhabitants of the village, as among all men, this love is to be found, mixed in varying proportions with the other motives — among them the taste for precision and work properly done, and the desire to be talked about, and greed for money, consideration, fame, honors, titles, and also antipathies and jealousies and friendships. This village, like all other villages, is composed of average humanity, with a few excesses above and below.

Thus, Weil argues, the capital-T truth science purports to produce is merely the average of the various subjectivities of the villagers:

As elsewhere, the strife of generations and individuals results at any given moment in an average opinion. The state of science at a given moment is nothing else but this; it is the average opinion of the village of scientists… As for the scientists themselves, they are naturally the first to pass of their own opinions as if they were deliverances of an oracle, for which they have no responsibility and cannot be called to account. This pretension is intolerable, because it is not legitimate. There is no oracle, but only the opinions of scientists, who are men. They affirm what they believe they ought to affirm, and they are right to do so; but they themselves are the responsible authors of all their affirmations and are accountable for them.

Art adapted from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

What modern scientists are most accountable for, Weil argues, is the rupture with classical science, which was better integrated with philosophy:

What is disastrous is not the rejection of classical science but the way in which it has been rejected. It wrongly believed it could progress indefinitely, and it ran into a dead end about the year 1900; but scientists failed to stop at the same time in order to contemplate and reflect upon the barrier, they did not try to describe and define it and, having taken it into account, to draw some general conclusions form it; instead, they rushed violently past it, leaving classical science behind them. And why should we be surprised at this? For are they not paid to forge continually ahead? Nobody advances in his career, or in reputation, or gets a Nobel Prize, by standing still. To cease voluntarily from forging ahead, any brilliantly gifted scientist would need to be a sort of saint or hero, and why should he be a saint or hero?

What Weil is essentially championing is a necessary balance between progress and pause for reflection — something John Dewey had memorably advocated decades earlier. Having forgone that, she argues, modern scientists removed themselves from the big-picture questions of meaning by gradually fragmenting science into smaller and smaller units of measurable truth.

For a contemporary parallel, we need not look further than journalism and the media industry, which in their insatiable hunger for progress along flawed metrics like pageviews have reduced the profession’s true social currency — substantive writing that elucidates meaning — to “content,” which implies the very thing thing it purveys: meaningless filler material to stick between advertising. In her eternal prescience, Susan Sontag — who famously wrote that “anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading” — presaged this modern epidemic half a century ago, writing in 1964: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Where modern scientists erred, Weil argues, is in lurching forward with the content of science without stepping back to see the thing at all — the thing being the ultimate subject of their study, the nature of reality itself.

But make no mistake — severe as Weil’s critique may be, it is the opposite of anti-scientific: At its heart is not an assault on science but a passionate plea for protecting its integrity and ensuring its survival for generations to come. She considers the root of the problem:

Science, like every effort of thought, consists in interpreting experience… It is a mistake to think that experiment is of any use for this purpose, because all human thought, including beliefs which appear completely absurd, is experimental and claims to be based on and confirmed by experience… All thought is an effort of interpretation of experience, and experience provides neither model nor rule nor criterion for the interpretation; it provides the data of problems but not a way of solving or even of formulating them. This effort requires, like all other efforts, to be oriented towards something; all human effort is oriented and when man is not going in any direction he remains motionless. He cannot do without values. For all theoretical study the name of value is truth. It is impossible, no doubt, for men of flesh and blood in this world to have any representation of truth which is not defective; but they must have on — an imperfect image of the non-representable truth which we once saw, as Plato says, beyond the sky.

Illustration from Ralph Steadman's 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Classical scientists, Weil argues, had an imperfect representation of scientific truth — but they had one. She proposes a somewhat improbable and, in its imaginative improbability, a rather poetic solution — a mandatory period of pause for reflection amid science’s galloping progress:

A compulsory halt would … force scientists to try to recapitulate and revise… to make an honest survey of axioms, postulates, definitions, hypotheses, and principles, without omitting those which are implied in experimental technique itself, such as the use of the balance. Such a work would perhaps make science a field of knowledge, by revealing clearly the difficulties, contradictions, and impossibilities which today are hurriedly concealed under solutions behind which the intelligence can discern nothing. But it is a work which should be begun soon. Otherwise the arrest of science might lead, not to a renewal but to the disappearance of the scientific spirit throughout the whole world for several centuries, as happened after the Roman Empire had killed the science of Greece.

Weil argues that this compulsive concealment of the difficulties inherent to science, coupled with increasing specialization of the different villages, has ensured that “the layman cannot understand anything about science and that scientists themselves are laymen outside their own special departments.” Granted, with the hindsight of more than seven decades, we can perhaps exhale with a certain grateful awareness that this is no longer the case — if anything, we can even wonder whether the greatest scientific development of the twentieth century isn’t any particular theory or branch of science but the rise of science communication, which continues to popularize science among said “laymen,” increasingly inviting all of us to understand — and, in the case of citizen science, to contribute to — the conquest of truth.

And yet such cultural developments notwithstanding, Weil’s central charge rings just as true today:

In the present crisis there is something compromised which is infinitely more precious even than science; it is the idea of truth… So soon as truth disappears, utility at once takes its place, because man always directs his effort toward some good or other. Thus utility becomes something which the intelligence is no longer entitled to define or to judge, but only to serve. From being the arbiter, intelligence becomes the servant, and it gets its orders from the desires. And, further, public opinion then replaces conscience as sovereign mistress of thoughts, because man always submits his thoughts to some higher control, which is superior either in value or else in power. That is where we are today. Everything is oriented towards utility, which nobody thinks of defining; public opinion reigns supreme, in the village of scientists as in the great nations. It is as though we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion — whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, the radio — took the place of thought.

[…]

The official guardians of spiritual values have allowed them to decay… In the period of sorrow and humiliation which we have already entered and which will perhaps be a very long one, our only hope of recovering some day what we lack is to feel with our whole soul how well-merited our misfortune is… When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?

How very pregnant with poignancy this final remark is, for in the decades since Weil penned her lament, culture has become even more subservient to commerce. In fact, this very book — a packet of some of the most luminous, intellectually exhilarating, and spiritually stimulating thinking of the past century — is deeply out of print, presumably because at some point publishers determined there wasn’t enough of a “market” for these ideas outside the few of us willing to pay exorbitant prices for the handful of surviving copies.

Should you be so lucky as to find one such precious copy of On Science, Necessity and the Love of God — your local library might help — you will find yourself at once infinitely gladdened by Weil’s enduring ideas and infinitely saddened by the self-fulfilling prophecy embedded in this particular one. Complement it with Weil on how to make use of our suffering and how to be a complete human being.

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19 JUNE, 2015

Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality

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“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.

In On the Move: A Life (public library) — the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love — Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn’s poem “On the Move” from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.

Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam's busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)

He adds:

The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.

What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)

Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.

He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.

Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.

He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.

But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:

I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.

I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.

Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.

Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.

He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:

I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.

Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:

It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)

I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:

Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.

Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:

I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.

But their relationship lived up to Emerson’s assertion that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere” — Gunn’s feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks’s development as a writer, who was “eager for [Gunn’s] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else.”

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that has was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:

Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…

Sacks adds:

I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).

But it was in Gunn’s poetry that Sacks found something else — something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn’s intricate tapestry of influences — his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — Sacks writes:

I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.

Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne’s sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:

I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.

Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.

I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)

Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.

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