Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks
337 pages,
ISBN: 0676972616

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A Chemist Remembers his Childhood
by Jerry White

Oliver Sacks has certainly reached the point in his career where it would make sense to write a memoir. Hailed worldwide as a path-breaking neurologist, he's had a parallel career as a best-selling author; he's even been played by Robin Williams (who starred in the 1990 adaptation of his 1982 book Awakenings). But his newest book, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood, is a very eccentric autobiography. It covers a relatively short part of his life, and doesn't deal at all with the scientific pursuit that actually made him famous, neurology. Indeed, when he finally does get around to talking about how he became a doctor, the narrative takes a bittersweet, almost sad turn. "It was 'understood,' by the time I was fourteen, that I was going to be a doctor; my parents were doctors, my brothers in medical school," he writes, in the book's last few pages. "My parents had been tolerant, even pleased, with my early interests in science, but now, they seemed to feel, the time for play was over" (p309).

The "play" that Sacks is referring to is chemistry, which was for him an all-consuming, utterly adolescent passion that reminds me very much indeed of the "secret vice" of dead or artificial languages that J.R.R. Tolkien and his admirers speak of in such giddy tones. "I wanted to be a chemist," Sacks writes. "A chemist like [Carl Wilhelm] Scheele, an eighteenth-century chemist coming fresh to the field, looking at the whole undiscovered world of natural substances and minerals, analyzing them, plumbing their secrets, and finding the wonder of unknown and new metals" (p45). His various experimental and literary adventures (and one of the pleasures of this book for the non-scientist is learning about all sorts of scientific writing) in chemistry are what constitute the meat of Uncle Tungsten.

This is not to say that we don't learn anything about his family life, or of history; indeed, for Sacks, the pursuit of chemistry is all wound up with familial relationships and the odd little details of antiquated material culture. The book is named for his Uncle Dave, whom he came to call Uncle Tungsten because he was in the lightbulb business. "He had several glass-fronted cabinets in his office, one of which contained a series of electric lightbulbs," Sacks recalls. "There were several Edison bulbs from the early 1880s, with filaments of carbonized thread; a bulb from 1897, with a filament of osmium; and several bulbs from the turn of the century, with spidery filaments of tantalum tracing a zigzag course inside them. Then there were the more recent bulbsłthese were Uncle's special pride and interest, for some of them he had pioneered himselfłwith tungsten filaments of all shapes and sizes" (pp34-5). This strikes me as quite a typical passage because of the way that it renders odd little details (glass-fronted cabinets, differing kinds of filament) in very clear, almost bland prose which somehow ends up tinged with gently melancholic nostalgia.

For Sacks is no stylist, at least not in this book; his writing is clear but sometimes so modest and weighed down with detail as to feel a little naive. After being lost among some snowdrifts during his wartime boarding-school days, he recalls, "I was very happy to be found, finally, and hugged and given a mug of hot chocolate when I got back to school" (p21). A bit later, he turns towards the historical: "Edison experimented with many other metals with higher melting points to get a workable filament, but none proved suitable. Then in 1879 he had a brainwave" (p49). There's nothing really wrong with bits like these, they just feel awkward, not-quite-cooked in a way that readers of memoirs by far less distinguished writers than Sacks will no doubt recognise. Still, there are benefits to this restraint, this lack of adornment. Recalling his first engagement with Marie Curie's writing, he recalls that "I loved the minute descriptions of the elaborate chemical processes the Curies performed, the careful, systematic examination of radium's properties, and especially the sense of intellectual excitement and wonder that seemed to simmer beneath the even-toned scientific prose" (p260). It's hardly surprising that Sacks zeroes in on this aspect of Curie's work, because it's exactly what he is doing throughout Uncle Tungsten. His prose is certainly even-toned and his descriptions of various scientific concepts and processes are often meticulous, but all this calmness always hints at (or sometimes just fails to fully convey) an ever-present sense of glee, of astonishment at the sheer vastness of the natural sciences.

Sacks' use of language is ironic, though, in light of his admiration for the scientist-poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. In a chapter called "Humphrey Davy: A Poet-Chemist", he writes that "[t]here still existed, in the early nineteenth century, a union of literary and scientific culturesłthere was not the dissociation of sensibility that was soon to comełand Davy's period at Bristol saw the start of a close friendship with Coleridge and the Romantic poets" (p126). This is not exactly C.P. Snow, but running throughout Uncle Tungsten is a pronounced desire to join the scientific method with a poetic view of the world. Rationalism, clarity, the search for genuinely new knowledge: these are the ideals that animate his story of a precocious adolescent, and these ideals certainly have equal amounts in common with the best impulses driving both the humanities and the sciences.

And for Sacks, the ultimate realisation of these ideals is the Periodic Table of the Elements. Marvelling at the way that Mendeleev's first Table seemed to bring order to the seemingly infinite, he writes that "[t]o have perceived an overall organization, a superarching principle uniting and relating all the elements, had a quality of the miraculous, of genius. And this gave me, for the first time, a sense of the transcendent power of the human mind, and the fact that it might be equipped to discover or decipher the deepest secrets of nature, to read the mind of God" (p191). Spread across the next two pages is the complete Table, whose history and darker corners he spends the rest of the chapter exploring. This is the part of the book where Sacks' adolescent relationship to chemistry comes out most clearly, and this isn't a bad thing. The Table for him contains all the big answers, the key that will unlock everything. He writes: "I was convinced that the periodic table was neither arbitrary nor superficial, but a representation of truths which would never be overturned, but would, on the contrary, continually be confirmed, show new depths with new knowledge, because it was as deep and simple as nature itself. And the perception of this produced in my twelve-year-old self a sort of ecstasy, the sense (in Einstein's words) that 'a corner of the great veil had been lifted.'" The Table becomes an odd combination of a perfect playmate and a perfect parent: infinitely wise, and infinitely interesting.

Sacks also tells us about a number of moments of sheer madness. Like the section about the Periodic Table, these passages have a sensibility that is uniquely adolescent. One deeply strange section recalls how his mother, an OB/Gyn, "would occasionally bring back malformed fetuses to the housełanencephalic ones with protruding eyes at the top of their brainless, flattened heads, or spina bifida ones in which the whole spinal cord was exposed. Some of these had been still-born, others she and the matron had quietly drowned at birth ('like a kitten,' she once said), feeling that if they had lived, no conscious or mental life would ever be possible. 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, and probably imagined that I was as enthusiastic here as she was" (pp240-41). I see Sacks trying to gain some adult distance from this experience here (you can almost hear him think "man, that was odd, wasn't it?"), but if he had really moved beyond his unformed, childish feelings about (really quite insane) experiences like dissecting deformed foetuses or the (deeply troubling) morality of his mother's drowning babies with birth defects, I think he'd have a hard time recounting all this with such apparent calm.

Finally, it is this kind of open, semi-naive calmness that lies at the heart of a great deal of scientific or aesthetic activity, and I think that it has something to offer an engaged reader. Oliver Sacks is not a master wordsmith, but he is blessed with a great memory and a willingness to state plainly what happened and let its significance filter through slowly. For as distinguished a scientist to go into such detail about a point in his life when he's still so unformed intellectually strikes me as an unusual and potentially self-serving exercise (ah, I was so bright and precocious as a lad, etc.). It comes off, however, as a rich meditation on the emergence of an enlightened mind. ņ

Jerry White becomes an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Alberta in July.


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