Brain Candy Sale

Saturday, January 4th, 2003


Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

A review by Doug Brown

Like Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, this delightful memoir conveys the author’s fascination with the natural world while making you intensely jealous of his childhood. Surrounded by a bouquet of scientific and academically-minded relatives, Sacks was allowed free rein to explore whatever tickled his fancy. Information about a wide variety of subjects was available to him, but it was chemistry that grabbed him most. In an unused pantry, he was allowed to practice chemistry in an unsupervised way that would likely result in removal from his parents’ care in today’s protective society. Many of the chemicals he purchased at the local supply shop to experiment with are now controlled and unavailable to the public. But this seemingly dangerous environment nurtured an understanding and respect of elements and compounds that today’s students do not usually acquire until much later in their academic development. Central to encouraging young Oliver’s love of chemistry was his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs, primarily with tungsten filaments. Oliver would return from visits to "Uncle Tungsten’s" factory with lumps of metal in his pockets and ideas sloshing through his head.

Expecting a more typical memoir, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this is a book about chemistry. Having lost the fascination for chemistry in his teen years and having turned to a career in medicine, this book is Sacks’ paean to what he loved about the science as a child. Anyone who has ever felt that drive to learn everything about a topic will recognize his exuberance, as well as his later loss of passion. But at its core, this is a book about elements and how they interact with each other. Though non-scientists may be put off by this emphasis, they will gain insight into the appeal of the subject. In addition, those more well-versed in science, particularly chemistry, will find Uncle Tungsten a scintillating read. More than a memoir, more than a chemistry book, it is a recapturing of wide-eyed fascination and hunger for knowledge.

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