Thursday, March 18, 2021

Book 276: Uncle Tungsten


"My own mood had been predominantly scientific for four years; a passion for order, for formal beauty, had drawn me on—the beauty of the periodic table, the beauty of Dalton's atoms. Bohr's quantal atom seemed to me a heavenly thing, groomed, as it were, to last for an eternity. At times I felt a sort of ecstasy at the formal intellectual beauty of the universe." 

Dates read: November 14-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I wonder how much our family has to do with who we turn out to be. Would I love reading so much if I hadn't grown up in a household where it was heavily encouraged? Then again, I do love TV even though my mom didn't let us have very much of it when I was growing up. And you hear all the time about nerdy kids who grew up in Sports Families (and vice versa). I guess the only thing I feel comfortable concluding is that raising can encourage latent tendencies in a child that already exist.

That being said, though, is it any surprise that Oliver Sacks grew up to be a scientist? The world-famous neurologist was himself the son of doctors, and had several aunts and uncles who made their living from science. The title personage of Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten was an uncle who owned a lightbulb factory that made filaments from, well, tungsten, and gave young Oliver the inspiration to study chemistry, which persisted through his London childhood. As Sacks got older, he became more and more engaged in studying the periodic table, and the book uses its development as a framework for Sacks' own.

In many ways, his recollections are tales from a lost world...not just the major historical events like the Blitz (which sent Sacks and one of his brothers to a boarding school in the countryside where they were treated with cruelty), but of a time when a child could get himself to the chemistry supply store and just buy the things they needed to perform their own experiments. Sacks built himself a chemical lab station in his room and happily produced minor explosions without much in the way of adult involvement. He recounts these experiments, along with the development of the periodic table and the discovery of new elements, in sometimes-tedious detail, but by the time he reaches his story's end, he's entered his teenage years and his interest in chemistry is no longer as all-consuming as it once was.

Much to the consternation of my own pharmacist mother, I never really took to chemistry. I found it dry and complicated in a way that did not engage my brain. This book's emphasis on the subject, therefore, kept me from being as fully immersed in it as I'd hoped to be. It is as much a book about how the elements were discovered and organized as it is about the childhood of Oliver Sacks. I actually found it fairly interesting despite myself, at least until it got later on when the naturally occurring elements were all on there and it turned towards the chemically derived ones.

On the whole, though, if you're inclined to like Oliver Sacks, you'll likely enjoy this memoir. In both this book and A Leg To Stand On, he treats his own experiences much like those that he recounts of his patients in his other work...with kindness and genuine curiosity. A lesser writer would have used the pathos of the awful boarding school experience he had to manipulate the emotions of his readers, but Sacks recounts it straightforwardly and without dismissing its ultimate importance, lets it slide mostly into the background. At the end of the day, this book recounts the childhood of a well-off British Jewish boy, surrounded by high achievers, who became deeply entranced with chemistry and grew up to be a neurologist. Very little exciting actually happens, but Sacks' skill with words and the obvious delight he takes in learning and sharing his knowledge, it ends up being a compelling read. I'd recommend it for anyone, especially Sacks fans and people who enjoy memoirs.

One year ago, I was reading: Lost Children Archive

Two years ago, I was reading: The Stranger

Three years ago, I was reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Four years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Five years ago, I was reading: The Nazi Hunters

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