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From the Archives: Oliver Sacks' Table of Elements

Thursday, August 06, 2015 - 06:51 PM

Dmitiri Mendeleev (Photo Credit: RIA Novosti)

As we're busy working on our next episode, with stories inspired by the Periodic Table of Elements, we thought we'd bring you one of its chief inspirations.  As a young boy, neurologist, author and Radiolab favorite Oliver Sacks pored over the pages of the Handbook of Physics and Chemistry, fantasizing about the day that he, like the shy gas Xenon, would find a companion with whom to connect and share. That companion turned out to be the Periodic Table of the Elements itself, a relationship he's never outgrown. He introduces us to the elements that he's known and loved. 


Dr. Oliver Sacks


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Comments [24]

henadzi filipenka from grodno

Nov. 03 2015 01:33 AM
Richard from New Mexico

" Doug from California where many of the hevier elements were created
I too would like to see the painting of Mendeleev as Moses. I can't find it anywhere either. Radio Lab can you ask Oliver to post a picture or provide a URL for it?"

Very simple to find: Put term "Mendeleev as Moses" in Google Images. First image shown is what you are looking for.

Oct. 28 2015 04:15 PM

As a huge fan of Dr. Sacks I looked forward to this program very much. But what a disappointment, I could not take more than five minutes. What is it with all the damn background noise? The program hosts are so much into themselves and their "creativity" that the message becomes lost.

Oct. 15 2015 11:59 AM
frantz from Germany

Thanks for this great episode.
It is mentionned that Oliver Sacks was writing a children book on the periodic table. Is it out? what is the name of it? where can I find it?

Thank you guys for Radiolab

Oct. 07 2015 06:10 AM
Flavia from Sao Paulo, Brazil

Your podcast is what * all mass media * should be like: enjoyable, educational, intelligent, serious, playful, curious, loving, human, emotional, awe inspiring, personal (from you to us) - I have NEVER been bored or even distracted during one of your programs! THANK YOU

Sep. 16 2015 05:33 PM
Helen Batchelder from Harvard MA

One day, it's a small thing, and a long time ago, you're visiting your friend Jeff at his mother's house, and she mentions this new book, and you're intrigued, so you find The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and you read it, engrossed. With humankind. And medicine. And things awry. It's before your child is born, I think, and boy howdy, a sinkhole of awry opens up at your feet. Eventually, you read a lot of things by the same author, until, a few decades later, it's Musicophilia, and then you hear interviews with the writer on Radiolab. Radiolab brings connections, wit, and information to your ears as you run, filling the space between your ears in a very close, intimate way, and sometimes you feel engrossed with the genius of humanity and sometimes defeated by the cruelty; today though you are so sad when Oliver Sachs dies, and surprised that so many others know him too, because, wait, he's yours and Robert Krulwich's, right? Right? And then one day you are running down the road, and hear Radiolab has repeated, in memoriam, Dr. Sachs' heartbreaking story of love lost, and very very late in life, love found, mixed in with the fatal liver cancer and the joy of eating liver (a joy I'll never know, I'm sure); of an old woman hearing songs that were sung to her when she was a baby, inside her own head, driving her crazy at first, and then missing them as they dissipated, once they had been put into context by Dr. Sachs; and your head is filled again with his influence, and Robert Krulwich's: people you've never met, ever, who have relevance to you anyway, as you live, and in that moment Oliver Sachs becomes godlike, while your sanity is called into question, as you think molecularly of molecules that have nothing to do with your own. Which is just as it should be, when remembering a neurologist Amen, RIP, Indigo. May you echo, echo, echo.

Sep. 03 2015 06:05 PM
Keith Schwab from Pasadena/Caltech

Dear Jab and Robert,
Thanks for so many great stories; I have learned so much over the years.

That being said, I remember when this piece about the periodic table first aired and I was really surprised by the approach to this subject and the conclusion of the piece. At the conclusion, there is a question posed whether the periodic table truly represents some underlying order of nature, of is this just a man-made arrangement, human imposed order (similar to simply naming the things around us.) This question was left unresolved as if to suggest that it is a deep mystery still yet to be understood, or maybe impossible to understand.

This did a great disservice to your listeners who are unaware of basic quantum physics. When you apply quantum mechanics to the understand the energy levels of an electron around a proton, to describe hydrogen, you find something beautiful in the mathematics: spherical harmonics. The mathematical solution of the wavefunction shows a degeneracy of the energy levels (degenerate means that two different solutions have the same energy) and the number of the orbitals which are degenerate exactly matches the arrangement that Mendeleev discovered! 2 electrons in the 1S-shell (hydrogen and helium), followed by 2 electrons in the 2s shell (lithium and beryllium), 6 electrons in the 2P shell (boron, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, fluorine, neon)...ect

So, the answer of the question is YES...nature does(!) have underlying order and this order was apparent when the quantum nature of the electron was understood. What is so beautiful, is that the periodic table comes right out of the mathematics of the Schrodinger equation. This would have been so educational for your listeners to hear, rather than leaving this ambiguous, fluffy, uneducated. To leave your listeners with the idea that atoms are not understood, the chemical nature not understood, ect.... great disservice.

This bothered me a lot when it was first aired, and even more that it would be brought out of archive. As much as I love Oliver Sak's writings about neuroscience, he was not the right guy to talk to about the periodic table.

With best wishes,
Keith Schwab
Professor of Applied Physics

Aug. 31 2015 11:27 AM
Raymond Hogan from Portland, OR

Rest in peace, dear Oliver Sacks

Aug. 30 2015 02:14 PM
Luke Matthews

I would not have guessed that this bloke with a posh English accent was a champion weightlifter! RIP

Aug. 30 2015 07:27 AM
Doug from California where many of the hevier elements were created

I too would like to see the painting of Mendeleev as Moses. I can't find it anywhere either. Radio Lab can you ask Oliver to post a picture or provide a URL for it?

The Mendeleev painting of Moses reminded me of Mel Brooks in the movie History of the World Part 1. Mosses comes don the mountain carrying the 15 (oops, dropped a tablet), ten, the ten commandments,

If this were done with Mendeleev it would be the 62 no 100, not 119 elements. Could be an equally as funny bit.

Radio Lab PLEASE ask Oliver to post a picture of the Mendeleev as Moses painting.


Aug. 28 2015 11:48 AM
Chris Coldren from Nashville

This was another beautiful episode!

The Peter Selgin (sp?) painting of Mendeleev as Moses sounds incredible! I can't find an image-- can anyone else?

Aug. 22 2015 12:57 PM
limor rad from Tel Aviv, Israel

Thank you for the inspiration! looking forward the next one :)

Aug. 21 2015 11:44 AM
Carl from Long Beach, CA

It's like Oliver was listening to the subject of a thesis I was going to write for my Clinical Psych Master's back in 1996 (but they never asked so I didn't write it). I was going to show how personality types could be given an element based on electronegativity, ductility, magnetism, radioactivity and various other characteristics. To hear him say that he thought he was a Xenon and was so encouraged to find out that it could be coaxed into a bond with Fluorine was exactly what I'd hoped to hear from clients in a marriage & family counseling environment. There's a whole class of scientist/engineer types who are masters of chemistry in a lab but are nearly helpless children when is comes to chemistry in relationships. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! Learn from this: even if they don't ask, write your thesis anyway!

Aug. 17 2015 03:48 PM
Chauncey from Portland OR

Looking for a song ID of the track starting at the 12:00 mark.

Aug. 11 2015 12:51 PM

Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prelude - Johann Sebastian Bach

Aug. 10 2015 06:53 PM
Robert from the Other Red Hook

Thanks for the delightful episode where Oliver talks about the elements. It touches on something that has always befuddled and filled me with wonder. We can think of things either qualitatively or quantitatively. But the Periodic Table is the place where the two come together. But how? How wonderful it is that the essentially mathematical relationships between the geometric order of electrons, protons and neutrons translate into such vastly different physical properties!

Aug. 10 2015 06:15 PM

Does anyone happen to know the composer of the music at 13:48? I love this piece and can't find it!

Aug. 10 2015 03:36 PM
Boris from Portugal

Amazing I like oliver sacks and his take on how music and neurology connect.

Aug. 10 2015 12:53 PM
John from us

Didn't you guys already do this?

Aug. 10 2015 10:35 AM
Alvin from Washington DC

Happy Birthday Robert! You guys should bring on Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. The conversation between he and Dr. Sacks concerning Scientific dogma's obstruction to modern science would be incredibly interesting:

Aug. 09 2015 10:21 AM
Gretchen Grove from Hawaii

I'm a printmaker and several years ago was one of the artists who worked on The Periodic Table Printmaking Project. Each of us did research on our element, then produced an art print to illustrate it. You can check it out at It's fun.

Aug. 08 2015 11:34 PM
Dave Jackson from Cleveland, Ohio

If you are doing an episode on the Periodic table, you need to check out George Hrab who wrote song about each element (all 118). It's hilarious and educational. You can hear it at George is one of the most creative people on the planet. You can find him at

Aug. 08 2015 03:04 PM

Happy Birthday, Mr. Krulwich, Happy Birthday to the Hagged Hunter!!! :)

Aug. 08 2015 09:48 AM
William White from Traverse City, MI

I really like all the sound effects and mixing in this episode. You guys should get back to this in your newer episodes. Thanks!

Aug. 07 2015 10:10 AM

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