Oliver Sacks -- the celebrated British neurologist and author of the book Musicophilia, which explores the brain's exciting and unpredictable relationship with music -- died Sunday (August 30) of cancer at the age of 82 in his New York City home.
Sacks was one of the most popular scientists of his time, and The New York Times reports he received about 10,000 letters per year. His ability to capture more than just the condition, to capture the human underneath it, helped him achieve success as a lecturer and an applauded author. His 2007 book Musicophilia chronicled the tales of people who had strange, often whimsical flings with music in their lives.
One passage is devoted to Tony Cicoria, an upstate New York orthopedic surgeon who gets struck by lightning at a pay phone and, when he recovers, discovers a strong urge to listen to piano music. Sacks wrote:
What then happened still fills Cicoria with amazement, even now, a dozen years later. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when "suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music." This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, "but no real interest." He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock music.
Sacks' 1973 memoir Awakenings was turned into a 1990 film starring Robin Williams, who played a fictionalized version of him onscreen. The story tells of Sacks' quest to use the drug L-Dopa to help his patients -- one of whom is played by Robert De Niro -- come out of their catatonic states.
In February, Sacks penned an op-ed for the Times where he very openly discussed his cancer and the end of his life. Earlier this month, he wrote another one called "Sabbath" where he talked of winding down and going to his rest, much like certain religious traditions would celebrate a sabbath.
His extensive work with music and the brain will be some of his most-remembered. As Sacks wrote in Musicophilia:
The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain...Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.