Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals-also by chemical reactions (the louder and smellier the better), photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In this endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded. In Uncle Tungsten we meet Sacks' extraordinary family, from his surgeon mother (who introduces the fourteen-year-old Oliver to the art of human dissection) and his father, a family doctor who imbues in his son an early enthusiasm for housecalls, to his "Uncle Tungsten," whose factory produces tungsten-filament lightbulbs. We follow the young Oliver as he is exiled at the age of six to a grim, sadistic boarding school to escape the London Blitz, and later watch as he sets about passionately reliving the exploits of his chemical heroes-in his own home laboratory. Uncle Tungsten is a crystalline view of a brilliant young mind springing to life, a story of growing up which is by turns elegiac, comic, and wistful, full of the electrifying joy of discovery.
Sacks was a remarkable chronicler of the mind and lived a very eventful childhood in a bygone era. In LP Hartley's apt turn of phrase, 'the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'. We want to find out more about that country, but Sacks leaves us high and dry. What was it like to live in England through the war, with food rationed, and national mobilization underway? He mentions people and events in a detached way, almost as a historian, certainly not as a highly gifted child who was actually there growing up in those cataclysmic times.
Lastly, Sacks literary style is severely lacking in the flow department. He frequently interrupts the narrative to walk us with excruciating detail through technical explanations of the chemical properties of an element or an experiment he conducted in his basement. Feels like his editor gave him a free pass to ramble at ease.
The bottom line is, this concave book has a more limited appeal than expected, given what we know of the author. Instead of reflections on his childhood, we are treated to a master lecture on chemistry and physics. His omissions tell us more about him than his narrative. Unless you have a particular penchant for the hard sciences, you may find yourself frustrated in this read.
When told that Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen, that Mendeleev devised the periodic table, etc., instead of a quickening of interest, my response was continuously, "Yes, I know."
If you didn't take (or have largely forgotten) high school chemistry, and have some interest in science, then this book will provide you with a recounting of chemical thought from earliest times up through Niels Bohr's quantum theories about electrons. It's well-written and very accessible. If you do remember your high school chemistry, the book will probably disappoint a bit.
I found the book rather sad at the end. All the love of chemistry that permeated Oliver Sacks' life was repressed when he reading adolescence as it was expected he would become a doctor. Which he did -- and where he has made a large difference to many lives. But what would have happened had he followed his heart?
But there is more to the book that makes me give this an enthusiastic five stars. As a chemist I was delighted to read a book that gave insight into this space of history of the chemistry profession. The history is two-fold: first it is a history of childhood enthusiasm for science and second it is a history of chemistry in the middle of the 1900s. many a child is enthusiastic about something. For all those children who loved science but never had the means to explore this book will bring sadness at what they lost for not being given such freedom and support. But the book also brings joy at reading that someone, somewhere had the chance to be the brilliant child you always thought you were. Today we highly restrict certain chemicals and also have an emphasis on safety in working with all chemicals. Sacks presents a time period when chemistry and science in general was done with little concern for safety. Instead of glossing over things Sacks presents information and experiments without deluding the reading into thinking it was perfectly safe.
This book is an excellent exploration of multiple themes that are well worth thinking about. I challenge anyone to read it and not find something in it that doesn't provoke some thoughts about what you are doing now with what you are enthusiastic about or what you loved childhood and now have lost as an adult.
His early fascination with chemistry was based on his attraction to the physical properties of materials he saw as solid, permanent in contrast to the chaotic and unreliable social world of WWII.
This early interest was encouraged and nourished by a large nurturing family of equally extraordinary, intellectually curious people.
It is a vivid example of the interplay of nature and nurture.
Typical of his generous, positive view is that even these sad times (like his brother’s eventual mental illness, and his parents’ unawareness of his own suffering at the horrible school and their inexplicably thoughtless, even insensitive, behavior, and his own anxieties and isolation) never sound regretful or self-centeredly whiny, though he describes them forthrightly. He’s generous and direct and loving in his description of his passions, as well as his depiction of his enormously engaging, supportive and remarkable family. It’s refreshing to read a personal account that is not tortured or blaming.
Through Uncle (Dave) "Tungsten", Sacks's intellectual curiosity in chemistry was aroused. (Mathematics was also an obsession.) At an early age, he acquired all manner of chemicals and set up his own laboratory where he conducted experiments to understand better the chemical properties of various elements and compounds. One amazing aspect of the story is how easy it was for Sacks to acquire chemicals that are quite dangerous and how tolerant his parents were of the goings-on in his lab in an attached shed. One cannot imagine such liberality or forbearance today.
In many ways, Sacks's memoir gives the history of chemistry advances in the 19th and 20th century. He describes the breakthrough work of many of the icons of early chemistry -- Boyle, Lavoisier, Davy, Faraday, Mendeleev and others. His burning impulse to understand how the physical world was constructed and interacted is plain to see and marked him as an unusual young person of great intellectual potential.
What's perhaps even more compelling in Sacks's story is his depiction of life before and during the war. Sacks, born in 1933, was shipped off to boarding schools away from London during the Blitz and his memories (many were not happy ones) give a fascinating view of life during this time. His family was closely connected to the Jewish community in London and his stories about this culture are interesting and evocative; he says that this tight knit society ceased to be after the war.
His path through the world of chemistry progresses through increasing levels of complexity. Some of his descriptions of chemical laws and processes are above my understanding; they made me aware of how much about chemistry I have forgotten, or, more likely, never knew. When he reached atomic realms of the periodic table of elements and structure of atomic entities, I was quite lost. Notwithstanding, it's worth slogging through the esoteric parts of the book, if for nothing more than to gain an appreciation of this young man's remarkable intellectual focus and his passion for knowledge.
Read June 2006