I just finished Oliver Sacks’s memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood, and I recommend it to science geeks everywhere.

It’s only half a memoir; Sacks uses his childhood fascination with chemistry to survey the elements, basic chemistry and physics, and the history of both fields from Robert Boyle through quantum mechanics.  The frequent references to his own chemical experiments helps bring the material alive… you finish the book with an almost sensual appreciation for the heaviness of tungsten, the smell of sulfur, the bright colors of flames and crystals and emission lines, the rarity of radium.

Most of his early experiments wouldn’t be available to children today– they’d be far too dangerous.  Sacks was allowed to buy poisonous or explosive chemicals at the local scientific supply store, and supplemented these with samples and equipment from his uncles.  He particularly liked processes that were explosive or stinky, but he had a keen appreciation for beauty and a curiosity that focused on the big questions– how did the elements differ, why did they do the things they did?

Sacks has always had a gift for vivid, humanistic portraits, and his sketches of early chemists and physicists, as well as the eccentrics in his own family, are fascinating.  And the early sciences are particularly interesting anyway, because they’re so accessible.  You can, as Sacks did, make your own battery or photographic paper or crystal radio.  It’s not so easy to do home experiments on genetics, quantum mechanics, or dark matter.

For reasons he can’t really explain, Sacks put aside his chemical investigations in adolescence; he studied medicine instead (both his parents were physicians) and ended up as a neurologist.  Still, he’s got to explaining electron shells by that point in the book, so as a survey of chemistry it comes to a good point of closure.

Though he’s adequately confessional about some of his own struggles and neuroses, he doesn’t focus much on traditional autobiography, except to underline how much he hated his schools.  I don’t think this is a weakness– he’s concentrated on what’s unusual about his childhood.  It’s evident that he wasn’t very social as a kid, except with people who shared his scientific interests; again, I think any science-minded geeks can relate.

 

 

 

 

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