Image of Actinium and Oliver Sacks and

Happy birthday, Oliver!

Saturday would have been Oliver Sacks’s 89th birthday. Oliver loved to measure his age by its equivalent element in the periodic table, and element 89 is actinium, a soft, silvery-white radioactive metal that’s currently being studied for use in cancer treatments. André-Louis Debierne, a French chemist, discovered it in 1899, after separating it from pitchblende residues left by Marie and Pierre Curie after they had extracted radium.

Even as a child Oliver had a love of the periodic table, and collected his own element samples throughout his life. He talks about this in the Ric Burns film “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”.

Cover of Uncle Tungsten

Oliver wrote about his early fascination with chemistry in Uncle Tungsten.

A couple years ago, Oliver’s partner Bill Hayes invited us to visit his apartment and photograph some of the small, unassuming items that filled Oliver’s life. One of the items we found most fascinating was Oliver’s wallet, with his New York driver’s license and other cards still inside. He kept a small periodic table of the elements in his wallet, where most people keep their photo ID, so that he could have it with him always.

Oliver's periodic table wallet

During filming for the documentary, he spoke about why he did this:

“Oh, I carry a periodic table in my wallet. I love it very much. It stands for order, stability – but it also stands for imagination and mystery.”

Happy birthday, Oliver!

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