Uncle Tungsten

I completely loved Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Sacks has written several best-sellers about the neurological disorders he studies–Awakenings is probably the most famous, as it was turned into a movie–but in this book, he casts his eye back over his own development as a scientist. Sacks’ parents were both from large families (thirteen in his father’s family and eighteen in his mother’s), and several aunts and uncles lived with them, with many others nearby. The family had a strong scientific bent: Sacks’ own parents were both doctors, and there were a number of other doctors, scientists, researchers, and inventors among their siblings. Which meant that whenever young Oliver expressed a curiosity about the world, there was a specialist near at hand to nurture that interest. Chemistry was his first love, and there was Uncle Tungsten (so nicknamed because he manufactured tungsten filaments for light bulbs) to give him samples of elements and guide his experiments. Auntie Len, a botanist and mathematician, leveraged Oliver’s interest in chemistry to get him out into the garden, teaching him about the mathematical principles underlying nature (the Fibonacci sequence, the golden section) as he explored the chemistry of plants. When Oliver mused aloud about the wealth of elements that might be found in the sun, Uncle Abe took the opportunity to engage Oliver in research into spectroscopy.

The adults around Sacks challenged his intellect; each of these paths to knowledge were paved with classic books in the field–no Chemistry for Dummies or Physics Made Easy for Oliver! If he wanted to learn, he could read Lavoisier, Davy, and Mendeleev in their own words. A challenge, yes, and also a compliment to a burgeoning young mind, telling him ‘we think you’re up to it, Oliver. You don’t need an elementary-level introduction to scientific topics; you’re a Sacks, you can jump right in at the adult level.’ His elders judged his enthusiasm well, and nurtured it wisely. They also gave him the freedom to experiment, to make errors and discoveries on his own. When an early chemistry experiment filled the house with noxious smoke, Oliver’s parents gave him a shed in the yard for a workspace. Oliver describes taking a bus across London to spend his carefully-hoarded pocket money at a chemical supply house: “The shopkeepers…would warn me now and then, ‘Go easy with that one!’ [but] they always let me have what I wished.” Acids, poisons, volatile and potentially explosive substances, all cheerfully wrapped up and sent along with the obsessive little 10-year-old boy. Shocking, yet appealing, the freedom young Oliver was given.

The book isn’t all carefree boyhood days of distilling poisons and shed-exploding idylls; Sacks delves into some traumas and tragedies as well–the terror and loneliness of being evacuated from London during the Blitz; the abuse he endured at boarding school; the gruesome, bloody death of his Aunt Birdie, at home, as his surgeon mother worked desperately to save her; the psychotic break and descent into madness suffered by his own brother, Michael. Sacks seems to be studying himself as he would one of his patients, exploring the events that shaped the man he became. I have always found Oliver Sacks an interesting and appealing character, and never more so than when at the center of his own story.

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