Apr/May 2002 Book Reviews

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Oliver Sacks
Picador, Pan Macmillan (December 2001) 337 pages
ISBN: 0 330 39635 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

Uncle Tungsten was just one of Oliver Sacks' amazing family. His real name was David, and tungsten was his passion. So, too, were all the other minerals for that matter. He had a large mineralogy collection and a chemistry laboratory, and his firm manufactured tungsten-filament light bulbs, but he was content to watch all the processes in his factory and think up refinements and new processes: happy to experiment rather than to be a business entrepreneur. His nickname distinguished him from his younger brother, Mick, who was Uncle Tin.

Then there was Uncle Abe, "the physics uncle"; Aunty Len, the "botany aunt", who founded a Jewish fresh-air school for delicate children; Auntie Annie, who was so orthodox that she was suspected of being on personal terms with the deity; Aunt Lina, who was "a ruthless and unscrupulous" money raiser for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and Oliver's talented mother who, like his quiet but equally talented father, was a physician.

And that was not all. Sack's maternal grandfather had married twice and had eighteen children. His eldest sons, Jack, Charlie and Henry, together with their sister, Rose, went to South Africa in the 1870s. The men became consultants in diamond, uranium and gold mines. Their sister was a photographer of the miners and the gold-rush boomtowns. Her son, Cousin Walter, took up the same profession, but was also a magician. He introduced Oliver to photography. There were also aunts and uncles on the Sacks side.

Altogether, this was a remarkable family whose members provided a wonderfully encouraging and knowledgeable environment for Oliver to grow up in.

As usual in Oliver Sacks' books, the anecdotal human stories are interlaced with the strictly scientific, so that there is plenty to hold the reader's interest. And some of the personal stories Sacks tells are riveting: the incident which led to his banishment from Cub Scouts; his memory of his exploding squid collection which caused the evacuation of a house Jonathan Miller's parents had rented for the summer holidays; and his introduction to the anatomical dissection of a corpse at the age of fourteen.

Some of the book reads like old-fashioned science lessons, covering the history and the knowledge of all those aspects of science which obsessed Sacks until adolescence. Formal learning and exams demanded his attention. Sacks tells us that one of his school reports said: "Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far," and he acknowledges some truth in this assessment of his character. And, at times, his scientific explanations in this book do go a bit too far and give the impression that he set out to instruct his readers, rather than just to share his passion.

Yet, large parts of the book, including much of the discussion of science, are fascinating. Any youngster looking for simple, spectacular, and, needless-to-say, dangerous experiments would find plenty here. She would, however (to her parents' relief), probably find many of the components impossible to buy.

Sacks, who is now in his sixties, was lucky to grow up in a time when Science was a hands-on, often messy, but very accessible field. Youngsters, especially those whose families were as encouraging as his, could explore it with few restrictions, and most of the chemicals were readily available. He was not so lucky to grow up in wartime London. Nor was he lucky to have been evacuated from the city to a school with a Dickensian schoolmaster who beat the boys maliciously and horribly. His parents, kept busy using their medical skills in London, had little inkling of the damage this experience did to their son. Sacks believes that it was his passion for Science and his ability to immerse himself in it during the bad times which saw him through.

Strange as it may seem, given his insatiable curiosity about science and his Aunty Len's early advice that "God thinks in numbers: numbers are the way the world is put together," Sacks confesses to being computer illiterate. All his writing, he says, is done with a pen or on an old typewriter. Perhaps this is essential. There is a theory that writing done on computers uses a different, less imaginative part of the brain to the part used when writing with a pen. For Sacks, science and imagination are inseparable: all his books have shown this, and this book again confirms it. He ends the book imaginatively by noting that he still dreams of science, and his favourite dream is that he (Hafnium) is at the opera, sharing a box with his "old and valued friends, Tantalum, Rhenium, Osmium, Iridium, Platinum, Gold and Tungsten."


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