Friday, May 08, 2015

Sacks and his fives

Oliver Sacks is my hero; I have read every one of his books eagerly (and wrote about his last book for Bookforum); I devoured On the Move and urge you to do the same. He has written about sex and his own sexuality here, remedying a striking omission from the rest of his work, but there are all sorts of other delights (one library bit I already linked to some time ago).

As a SWIMMING and powerlifting obsessive, I am of course especially enchanted by those bits (and pained by the lost suitcase of Muscle Beach photographs and other material! - so many lost books here...); but I am also just very struck by the vision of a working life. I found myself thinking several times as I read that I am too much of an insider, that I need really to rediscover my independence: the way to write amazing books is not to be an easy creature of the institution....

Anyway, THIS! (NB squat still weakest of the three lifts for me, but I am getting my technique down and there are some BIG NUMBERS in my near future I hope....)
Training intensively, even obsessively, at a small gym in San Rafael, I worked up to doing five sets of five reps with 555 pounds every fifth day. The symmetry of this pleased me but caused amusement at the gym--"Sacks and his fives." I didn't realize how exceptional this was until another lifter encouraged me to have a go at the California squat record. I did so, diffidently, and to my delight was able to set a new record, a squat with a 600-pound bar on my shoulders. This was to serve as my introduction to the power-lifting world; a weight-lifting record is equivalent in these circles, to publishing a scientific paper or a book in academia.
And an account that has the overly shapely ring of storytelling but that surely has a good deal of truth in it (bonus link: squid giant axon!):
I committed a veritable genocide of earthworms in the college garden: thousands of earthworms would be needed to extract a respectable sample of myelin; I felt like Marie Curie processing her tons of pitchblende to obtain a decigram of pure radium. I became adept at dissecting out the nerve cord and cerebral ganglia in a single, swift excision, and I would mash these up to make a thick, myelin-rich soup ready for fractionation and centrifugation.

I kept careful notes in my lab notebook, a large green volume which I sometimes took home with me to ponder over at night. This was to prove my undoing, for, rushing to get to work one morning after oversleeping, I failed to secure the elastic bands on the bike rack and my precious notebook, containing nine months of detailed experimental data, escaped from the loose strands and flew off the bike while I was on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Pulling over to the side, I saw the notebook dismembered page by page by the thunderous traffic. I tried darting into the road two or three times to retrieve it, but this was madness, for the traffic was too dense and too fast. I could only watch helplessly until the whole book was torn apart.

I consoled myself, when I got to the lab, by saying at least I have the myelin itself; I can analyze it, look at it under the electron microscope, and regenerate some of the lost data. Over the ensuing weeks, I managed to do some good work and had started to feel some optimism again, despite some other mishaps, as when, in the neuropathology lab, I screwed the oil-immersion objective of my microscope through several irreplaceable slides.

Even worse, from my bosses' point of view, I managed to get crumbs of hamburger not only on my bench but in one of the centrifuges, an instrument I was using to refine the myelin samples.

Then a final and irreversible blow hit me: I lost the myelin. It disappeared somehow--perhaps I swept it into the garbage by mistake--but this tiny sample which had taken ten months to extract was irretrievably gone.

A meeting was convened: no one denied my talents, but no one could gainsay my defects. In a kindly but firm way, my bosses said to me, "Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don't you go and see patents--you'll do less harm." Such was the ignoble beginning of a clinical career."
And the note: "Perhaps I had never really expected to succeed in research. In a 1960 letter to my parents, wondering about doing research in physiology at UCLA, I wrote, 'I am probably too temperamental, too indolent, too clumsy ad even too dishonest to make a good research worker. The only things I really enjoy are talking . . . reading and writing.' And I quoted a letter I had just received from Jonathan Miller, who, writing about himself, Eric, and me, said, 'I am, like Wells, enchanted by the prospect and paralyzed by the reality of scientific research. The only place where any of us move nimbly or with grace is with ideas and words. Our love of science is utterly literary.'"

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