Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and an award winning author who has written a number of books based on the case studies of some of his patients. Uncle Tungsten takes a different tack in that it is a memoir of Sacks’s boyhood in England: his eccentric, scientific family and Jewish upbringing, experiences of World War II, and his boyhood infatuation with chemistry.
The book is not only a memoir of a life but it interweaves the history of chemistry and pertinent anecdotes in such a seamless narrative that even those with a limited knowledge of chemistry (like me) can follow. Some of the content went above my head in places but I still managed to enjoy and appreciate his writing. In fact about a month ago we had a trip to Questacon, our National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, and I spent most of the time in the chemistry section. It all had a context for me after reading Uncle Tungsten.
Some of the best features of this book:
* The author filled his story with a boyish enthusiasm. He obviously possessed a mania for chemistry for a period of time when he was younger, but I got the impression it never really left him even though his life took a different direction later on.
* The number of books the author quoted or mentioned he’d read when he was growing up is fascinating, as is the abundance of footnotes scattered throughout. Literature, science fantasy, biography and history books are referred to. I love it when authors do this. It gives me more of a glimpse into the author’s personality and supplies me with ideas for my own reading.
One book he read as a ten year old was Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Madame Curie. I was reading this at the same time as I was reading Uncle Tungsten and thoroughly enjoyed all the connections.
* The historical context. At the outbreak of WWII, when Oliver was six years old, he was evacuated from his home in London to a boarding schooling in the Midlands where he remained for four years. He wrote that it was dehumanising, with beatings, starving and torment and that he was psychologically scarred. He returned to London in 1943 when his parents realised he was ‘close to the edge.’ How many children during those times suffered in similar ways?
* Uncle Tungsten was the nickname of Sack’s Uncle Dave on his mother’s side (his factory produced light bulbs using tungsten filament). His whole extended family had scientific inclinations but Uncle Dave was a great encouragement to his nephew in all things regarding metals and provided him with practical opportunities for satisfying his curiosity. My husband had a similar experience with his own uncle who loves gadgets and is always coming up with nifty little inventions. It was his enthusiasm for electronics that inspired my husband to go into electrical engineering.
I’m adding this book to our 20th Century plans for Ambleside Online Year 11. Just so you are a aware, there are a couple of places in the book that contain fairly overt references to male adolescent awareness of physical change and maturation (Chapter 22, for instance). Also his family members were interesting and sometimes bordered on the bizarre:
My mother’s practice had moved, sometime in the 1930’s from general surgery to gynaecology and obstetrics…she would occasionally being back malformed foetuses to the house…
…Some of these had been stillborn, others she and the matron had quietly drowned at birth (“like a kitten,” she once said), feeling that if they lived, no conscious or mental life would ever be possible for them. Eager that I should learn about anatomy and medicine, she dissected several of these for me, and then insisted, though I was only eleven, that I dissect them myself. She never perceived, I think, how distressed I became…
Personally, I’d save the book for an older student unless I was reading it aloud. It is a wonderful narrative and fits in well with the time period of AO Year 11 and I’m happy to include it there and discuss these areas as they come up. I bought my hardback copy quite cheaply at Abebooks.