Poet and author Diane Ackerman was born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois, on October 7, 1948. She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. Her most widely read book is 1990′s A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.
In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke and, as Ackerman wrote, “In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form.” His vast vocabulary was reduced to a single syllable: mem.
Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non-sequiturs like “my little spice owl,” “my little bucket of hair,” and “blithe sickness of Araby.” Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul’s journey back to language in her most recent memoir, One Hundred Words for Love (2011).
Diane Ackerman wrote, “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”
– The Writer’s Almanac