By Robin Hirsch
“K.C.,” I said, “why don’t you do a reading at Cornelia Street?”
K.C. Cole was the science writer for the Los Angeles Times. She had a new book out about the physics of nothingness called A Hole in the Universe. Her publisher was throwing a party for her in New York.
“I’d love to.”
We navigated towards a date.
“Is there anybody you’d like to read with?
“Why—I’m not good enough?”
“K.C., I know you’re a star on the West Coast and in scientific circles. But nobody reads the L.A. Times in New York, and we have sixty seats to fill, and frankly, given the variety of stuff we do, and given the fact that what you do is fairly esoteric, we should perhaps hook you up with somebody else, so we can get a house.”
“Well, how about Roald Hoffmann?”
“Well, he’s quite a well-known poet. And he’s just had a play produced which he wrote with Carl Djerassi—you know, the chemist, the father of the pill—called Oxygen, which is going to London, and in fact all over the world. But Roald’s chief claim to fame is that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”
“Oh,” I said, rather disconsolately. “I’m not sure that he’ll ring too many bells either.”
“Well, how about me and Roald and Oliver Sacks?”
“Oliver Sacks, the neurologist?”
“Yes. Why? Do you know him?”
“Yes, we actually did a program together years ago. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. He brought a Touretter with him.”
“Oh, did he really? I’m sorry, he does that sort of thing.” What tricks might he have up his sleeve this time? I decided not to think about it.
“It’s a deal,” I said.
“O.K., I’ll alert the troops and we’ll come up with a common theme.”
And so she did. And so they did.
K.C. read from her book. Sacks read hesitantly from what appeared to be a voluminous autobiography-in-progress. It came out the following year to enormous acclaim as Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It was dedicated to Roald.
Roald in fact was the quiet unassuming center of the evening. In a gentle voice, his poems picked at great themes with a small chisel, prying away one layer only to reveal another layer beneath it. No great answers were forthcoming, only an interconnected series of ever more pertinent questions. In contrast to science, he said, “poetry soars, all around the tangible, in deep dark, through a world we reveal and make.”
Afterwards we had dinner together on the new banquette in the back room. K.C. was immensely pleased with the evening and kissed me. Sacks called me by my first name and emboldened me to call him Oliver. And at the end of the night Roald asked whether we might be interested in a little series which he could curate where scientists and humanists would address a common theme from their respective sides of the same mountain. It was out of this that Entertaining Science was born. Beginning in April 2002, it ran for sixteen years on the first Sunday of every month.
Oliver was a regular, both as a presenter and as an audience member. At least two of his books began in our basement. One of my favorite moments was Oliver, a preternaturally shy man, coming up to me onstage at the beginning of one ES in 2007 and presenting me with the first copy of Musicophilia.
I made some typically glib remark to the effect, “Ah, finally the long awaited sequel to MusicoHamlet,” but when I opened it there was the most touching inscription inside—“For Robin Hirsch, the Cornelia Street catalyst of NY’s cultural life. With admiration & best wishes, Oliver S.”
Oliver became comfortable enough over the years to open up about his own much shielded private life. Finally, after almost four decades of acknowledged celibacy, at an intimate dinner on the famous banquette in the back room, he introduced us (and by extension the world) to the beloved partner of his final years, Billy Hayes.
This is from Mandelbrot’s Chicken or, The Origins of Science, a story in Robin Hirsch’s interminablle work-in-progress, The Whole World Passes Through: Stories From the Cornelia Street Café.