Science should be fascinating to everyone. What makes Oliver Sacks’ memoir “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood” so wondrous isn’t that he starts out from that assumption. It’s that, as a true scientist at heart, he assumes nothing. He simply begins and ends by writing about what he loves best — and it’s not himself.
“Uncle Tungsten” is a paean to the properties of the physical elements that Sacks loved from a precociously young age, a love letter to the fascinating and sometimes outrageous history of chemistry and a sly seduction note to everyone who stumbled, slept or cheated their way through high school chemistry. Wrapped up inside all of that, Sacks also tells his own story: a boy whose blissful English childhood was shattered at the age of 6 when, at the onset of the second World War, he was sent away to a punishingly strict boarding school. A boy who, at 10, with “a passion for metals, for plants, and for numbers,” was delighted to be able to visit with his Uncle Dave — the “Uncle Tungsten” of the title — a light bulb manufacturer who indulged Sacks’ interests by teaching him about a panoply of metals, including Sacks’ (and Uncle Dave’s) all-time favorite, tungsten. A boy who, at the onset of puberty, suddenly realized with sadness that physics and chemistry couldn’t explain all the mysteries of the universe, and found himself newly drawn to literature and music as well.
“Uncle Tungsten” is a story told in myriad digressions. (The footnotes alone read like a miniature and highly idiosyncratic history of chemistry and the physical sciences.) Sacks writes first and foremost of the people and things that most engaged him as a boy: the unpleasant odor of certain elements he explored with the use of his chemistry set, substances he dubbed “the stinkogens”; the story of the English poet-chemist Humphrey Davy, who discovered sodium and potassium. Writing about metals whose properties he loves or about the dazzling discoveries of the scientists he reveres, Sacks eventually winds his way around to more personal recollections about his family life, his friendships and the gradual shaping of how he came to see the world around him.
Sacks writes, for example, of seeing a giant version of the periodic table at a museum in South Kensington in 1945. The table covered a large wall, and each of its squares featured a little cubicle with a sample of the element itself (all of the elements, that is, that could be obtained in pure form and exhibited safely).
The table’s sense of order and logic was a thing of beauty to Sacks, and now, writing about it some 56 years later, his enthusiasm feels bracingly fresh: “Whether one thought in terms of the verticals, the groups, or in terms of the horizontals, the periods — either way one arrived at the same grid. It was like a crossword puzzle that could be approached by either the ‘down’ or the ‘across’ clues, except that a crossword was arbitrary, was a purely human construct, while the periodic table reflected or represented nature, for it showed all the elements arrayed in a fundamental relationship (without, however, intimating why). I had the sense that it harbored a marvelous secret, but it was a cryptogram without a key.”
Sacks is captivated by the romance in science, and like a dashing suitor, he sweeps us along, too. He recalls the bliss of reading Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie Curie (who, with her husband, Pierre, discovered radium in 1898), particularly a passage describing how Pierre and Marie, restless one evening, returned to their laboratory shed and “saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates.” (In one of his beloved footnotes, Sacks also tells us that Marie Curie’s lab notebooks are still considered too dangerous to handle and are kept in lead-lined boxes.)
But more affecting than anything is Sacks’ eventual reckoning with the fact that, for various reasons, science couldn’t be everything to him. “Uncle Tungsten” is an exuberant book, detailing a number of boyish pranks and experiments gone wrong. (One particularly amusing tale involves exploding cuttlefish.) But there are subtler, more delicate undercurrents running beneath Sacks’ story. He recalls one day in 1947 (he would have been around 14), when, on holiday with his parents, he sat in the back seat of the car babbling happily about thallium, blissfully unaware that he was boring his audience to tears: “Thallium salts, like silver salts, were sensitive to light — one could have a whole photography based on thallium! The thallous ion, I continued, had great similarities to the potassium ion — similarities which were fascinating in the laboratory or factory, but utterly deadly to the organism … ” His parents, both of them physicians and generally indulgent when it came to young Oliver’s enthusiasms, finally had enough. His father exploded: “Enough about thallium!”
It’s a funny story, but it points the way to Sacks’ entry to adulthood, a period of adjustment that’s rough on all of us. Practically overnight, Sacks’ love for chemistry began to fade: “Other interests were crowding in, exciting me, seducing me, pulling me in different ways. Life had become broader, richer, in a way, but it was also shallower, too. That calm deep center, my former passion, was no longer there.”
Sacks went on to become a neurologist as well as, of course, a writer. With books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he has earned a reputation as something of a pop science guy — and that’s anything but a slam. People who have an affinity for scientific thinking are likely to enjoy “Uncle Tungsten,” but where does that leave the rest of us? There’s no greater gift a writer can give than to lure us, against our will, into a state of fascination over a subject that has never interested us in the least. In “Uncle Tungsten,” Sacks recaptures the way chemistry, his “lost love,” used to make him feel, and he makes us feel something for it, too. Scientists are not like you and me — unless they are you and me. Sacks makes the difference feel as weightless as helium.