Heroes: Oliver Sacks

I was in Los Angeles at UCLA doing a residency in neurology, but I was also very much on the beach — on Venice Beach, muscle beach.  There, there was very much a drug culture, as there was in Topanga Canyon where I lived.  One day, someone offered me some pot, and I took two puffs from it.  And I’d been looking at my hand for some reason, and the hand seemed to retreat from me, but at the same time get larger and larger, until it became sort of a cosmic hand across the universe, and I found that astounding. … I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling.  I’m strongly atheist by disposition, nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help but think that that was what the hand of God was like.

From Terry Gross’ excellent 2012 interview with Sacks.  Definitely worth a listen:

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/06/164360724/oliver-sacks-exploring-how-hallucinations-happen

It’s impossible to summarize the life and work of the great neuroscientist Oliver Sacks.  You can read about him and his many books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat here.  Just today, the New York Times published a beautiful piece in which Sacks reveals and responds to his diagnosis with terminal liver cancer and his impending death.  He concludes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Sacks will leave the world having vastly deepened our understanding of the human mind, and in particular the terrible and glorious aspects of the mind in extremis.  He spoke openly and evenly (if a bit shyly) about his own experiences with psychotropic drugs, including marijuana.  May his own wishes for the end of his life come to pass.

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Heroes: Carl Sagan

Like so many others,  I first encountered the great thinker, astronomer and teacher Carl Sagan through Cosmos (the original PBS series.)  Though too young to have watched it when it first aired, I probably first saw and understood it in the mid-eighties.  I particularly remember sitting on our family room couch with my father watching weekly installments of the show, which, if you haven’t seen it, is as amazing a picture of the scope and contents of the universe as we are likely to ever see.  The updated series, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson is almost as sublime.  Both series are fantastic straight, but are also really compelling when under the influence of a reasonable amount of your favorite cannabis.

Carl Sagan was a scientific polymath whose career spanned astrophysics, genetics and astrobiology, planetary science (he discovered many early facts about the atmospheres of Venus, Saturn and various moons) the early formation of life and the consequences of nuclear war. He was also a great communicator and teacher whose legacy now includes thousands of scientists now working in all of these fields, and millions of others who were inspired by his television work and writing.

What’s perhaps known by fewer people (though now can hardly be called much of a secret) is that Sagan was also a passionate user of cannabis sativa and a brave advocate for its legalization. Though he publicly endorsed California’s medical marijuana bill before his death in 1996, his most famous and eloquent expression on the subject came long before. Writing as Mr X, Sagan composed a marvelous essay for inclusion in the 1971 compilation Marijuana Reconsidered. Even in those days just before the madness of the mega-criminalization introduced by Nixon and super-charged by Ronald Reagan, it’s likely that his public credibility and possibly his scientific career would have been compromised had he revealed his identity. But Sagan’s anonymity doesn’t lessen the importance or interest of this essay. If you haven’t read it, I invite you to have a nice toke, sit back, and take a few minutes to read it now. Or, for those in a hurry, here’s a snippit from the essay’s last paragraph:

There is a very nice self-titering aspect to cannabis. Each puff is a very small dose; the time lag between inhaling a puff and sensing its effect is small; and there is no desire for more after the high is there. I think the ratio, R, of the time to sense the dose taken to the time required to take an excessive dose is an important quantity. R is very large for LSD (which I’ve never taken) and reasonably short for cannabis. Small values of R should be one measure of the safety of psychedelic drugs. When cannabis is legalized, I hope to see this ratio as one of he parameters printed on the pack. I hope that time isn’t too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.

If only he had lived to see the day.