Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
© 2001 Oliver Sacks
No future scientist was ever better primed for the life than Oliver Sacks. You may know him as a neurologist and the author of numerous books on the brain, some with amusing titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. As a boy, though, Sacks’ curiosity was universal – and it was fed by a generous supply of scientifically minded relatives, all of whom were willing to either train their young scion, or indulge his solo experiments by giving him equipment – and not just worn out beakers, either, but a fume closet and a hand-held spectroscope. The relatives’ fields varied from botany to chemistry, but Sacks’ appetite for scientific understanding saw him develop numerous hobbies that dovetailed with the enterprise, including photography. I could only read with astonishment as young Oliver freely bought various reagants that could have killed him, especially when he accidentally gassed his entire house! (Hence the fume closet from his folks, and the admonition to use smaller measurments in his experients! ) Although Sacks would eventually discover the humanities, too, the gateway drug was the mathematical properties of music. Uncle Tungsten is an interesting mix of science and boyhood biography, the beginnings of a lifelong love affair with science that I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m left wondering if I should hold Sacks in awe… or envy!