A Visit from Oliver Sacks


On November 12th, 2002, no less a personage than Oliver Sacks came to visit me and the Periodic Table Table. His book, Uncle Tungsten, was the original inspiration for me to make the table, so a visit from him represents a great honor for the table.

Sacks' interests and writings are far broader than chemistry: It's really a hobby for him, as it is for me. He is a neurologist and author by trade. (You may have seen the movie Awakenings, which was based on his book of the same name.) He's also written books about people with strange neurological disorders, people who really like ferns, the experience of breaking his leg, and many other topics. In other words, he's an interesting person to talk to about nearly anything.

I met Sacks and his long-time editor Kate Edgar for breakfast bright and early. He wasn't hard to spot, since he was the only one in the room wearing a periodic table T-shirt. The hotel happened to have Robin Williams being interviewed on the TV in the breakfast room (Williams played a somewhat fictionalized Sacks in the movie Awakenings). I think Williams has what you might call sub-clinical Tourette's syndrome, because nobody is that quick and clever without there being some sort of mental condition involved. (Of course Sacks has written about Tourette's, a condition he is largely responsible for popularizing.)

After breakfast we immediately headed for the Periodic Table Table, conveniently located in the office building attached to the hotel. He dug right in (click any picture below to get a larger version in a separate window):

Sacks was particularly taken by my hafnium lump, which I think was his favorite sample in the table. He also particularly liked the indium crying bars so I gave him one to take home:

He's not much for computers, so I showed him my Sodium Party web page and some of the videos on it:

Of course Ed and Chris were there too:

Ed showed him a demonstration of pyrolytic graphite levitating on a matrix of neodymium magnets, and gave him a bit of the graphite so he could do the demonstration himself.

Perhaps a small glimpse of his personality can be seen in the way he went through the samples. After first going through a few elements haphazardly, he settled in to a pattern to make sure he'd covered them all, but left tungsten for the very end. And I don't have a picture of him holding it! He'd just been to visit the Midwest Tungsten Service the day before, so I figured my puny eleven pound cylinder would be nothing compared to what he'd just seen. But he said that while they have huge amounts of wire and filaments, Midwest Tungsten didn't have any lumps quite as large as mine.

After the above statement had been up for a while, I got an email from Kevin Anetsberger of the Midwest Tungsten Service, who felt obligated to defend his tungsten bragging rights:
We deal mostly with mill and fabricated products, so we don't usually have any "lumps" around. We did have a .25 x 12 x 24 inch sheet here during Oliver's visit that weighed over 50 lbs. So, we do have and get heavy stuff, but it moves in and out as need be.
Far be it from me to impugn the substantiality of Midwest Tungsten Service's tungsten, especially since some day they might have a lump they don't need anymore.

Anyway, coincidentally I got a package at the office that morning containing some native arsenic and a sliver of cerium metal. It was fun opening a surprise element package. He must think I get this kind of package every day. (Not only that, when we got to my farm later in the day, there was another package, this one with a tungsten sparkplug waiting for me.)

After a delightful morning looking at elements, it was off to Jerry Glynn's house for lunch: Corn polenta and some kind of really nice leafy salad.

After the delightful lunch, it was time to visit the local company I had arranged a tour of. Some friends there have donated about a dozen very nice samples for my periodic table. I was pretty sure Sacks would have fun there, and he did. He particularly delighted in the beautiful multi-colored inorganic salts I can't show you pictures of for confidentiality reasons. But the highlight of the visit was when they served him a scandium hamburger complete with tungsten leaf lettuce and titanium onions (with sodium iodide and cobalt iodide for salt and pepper respectively):

Sacks, you see, wrote in Uncle Tungsten about a dream in which he was eating a scandium hamburger. I think he appreciated the effort to make his dreams, even the weird ones, come true.

We saw many wondrous and amazing things at the company, but I can't show you any pictures because the whole place is sopping with trade secrets.

After spending a delightful afternoon there, we headed out to my farm, where a delightful dinner was being prepared by a local caterer:

Notice how incredibly well-behaved the children's table was:

except when it wasn't:

After dinner it was time to adjourn to the withdrawing room, otherwise known as the workshop, for desert and some stimulating chemical demonstrations. First Tryggvi made ice cream by pouring liquid nitrogen directly into a mixture of cream, eggs, sugar, and chocolate syrup:

Here are some videos:
Ingredients being mixed together (2.8MB).
Pouring in the liquid nitrogen (14.0MB).
All finished (6.5MB).

Notice the complete unconcern of the small children in the second video. "Oh, you're going to pour liquid nitrogen into some cream? That's nice, I'll just keep eating my chocolates while I watch.".

It came out remarkably nice! I had expected something rather lumpy and full of hard crystals. But instead it was the smoothest, silkiest ice cream I'd ever had, like soft-serve but even smoother. Tryggvi says this is because the liquid nitrogen freezes the cream so rapidly that the ice crystals have no time to grow, resulting in a very fine grain structure. And of course the expanding nitrogen makes it light with microscopic bubbles.

In the mean time, everyone was having a fine time with our guest and each other:

Neils made some thermite, but we couldn't get it to light because we didn't have good magnesium ribbon, and time was short before the sodium explosion:

Video (3.6MB)

Then it was time for sodium! I cut up 177 grams into ca. one centimeter cubes:

And we set it off using the same Release-O-tron used in the Sodium Party.

The video (2.2MB) came out OK, but not as good as the ones during the sodium party. The most important result was to confirm that Sacks' claim in Uncle Tungsten that he dropped about three pounds of sodium into Highgate Ponds in Hampstead Heath was a wee bit overstated. When I re-read that passage after having done my own experiments my reaction was "no way". Three pounds of sodium is a huge amount, like a loaf of bread. If you threw that big a piece in all at once, I can say with some confidence that the police would have been involved before it was over with: Windows could have been shattered at some distance.

Based on his description of what he remembered doing, referenced to the actual pound or so of sodium in front of him, I think a better estimate would be about 100 grams. Sacks swears it must have been at least 300 grams.

After more cake and ice cream and some exploding flour it was sadly time to bring the day to a close. Sacks remarked to Chris that the evening reminded him of the nineteenth century custom of scientific parties such as one might have attended at the home of Humphry Davy or his fellow experimenters. (And even decades before the party, Sacks had this to say about it.)

Those early chemists were entertaining each other with the latest new discoveries. Today, it's all pretty much old hat to the professional. (Though something like Ed's demonstration of the levitation of pyrolytic graphite is a fairly recent discovery and not widely known: Sacks for example was not aware of it.) But that doesn't make them any less amazing to see in person. Liquid nitrogen is just plain fun stuff no matter how many times you play with it, and sodium metal doesn't lose its charm just because it's been known in pure form for generations.

I think it's important to keep these traditions of amateur interest in science alive. How are kids supposed to get interested in science as a career if they don't see adults enjoying it, instead of just laboring at boring laboratories where nothing ever explodes? And for kids, it is all new and exciting.

People like the guy who burns charcoal grills to the ground with liquid oxygen are doing a great service to the world, in my opinion.

And of course chemistry is by no means the only pretext one could have for such a party. I've had people out to play with our plasma cutter, or for the annual burning of our restored native prairie acreage:

Other people do this kind of thing with model airplanes, rockets, submarines, or robots. Some people gather to collect and identify mushrooms. Children should see this kind of thing going on all around them: People excited about something, doing something real. Not watching television.

Our kids were all excited about the whole concept of a party with a special visitor. Addie and Emma dressed up in their finest (Halloween costume) dresses, and afterwards Addie drew this picture of Kate and Oliver:

Text and all images on this page Copyright (c) 2002 by Theodore W. Gray