December 04, 2004

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

book cover: old blue lightbulb with a glowing tungsten filamentI first heard about this book in this delightful Live Journal entry by George Lazenby about how he and his friend Oliver Sacks went through some adventures with iridium.

The book tells the story of Sacks's childhood in England before, during, and after WWII. His parents were both medical doctors, and his other relations were similarly over educated. The uncle of the title is one who had a company making tungsten filament light bulbs and was Sacks's mentor into the world of chemistry.

The book is half "history of the world during his childhood as Oliver Sacks recalls it," and half an account of young Sacks's reenactment of the history of chemistry. This young boy in the London of the middle of the last century was able to easily acquire the necessary ingredients and recreate many of the experiments that led to our modern knowledge of chemistry.

Reading the book (and the voluminous footnote asides) it was impossible to not be caught up in young Oliver's passion for chemistry. It was fascinating to learn how recent many of the chemical discoveries are (Mendeleev devised the periodic table as we know it in 1869. The inert gasses were only discovered in the 1890s). His summary of the story of chemistry is as exciting as any potboiler.

The book is also kind of sad when you realize that many of the compounds young Oliver was able to buy for experimentation at his neighborhood chemists shop are now controlled substances available only to licensed professionals if even to them. It seems unlikely that anyone these days could incubate quite as productive a passion for chemistry at such a young age.

Posted by jeffy at December 4, 2004 07:35 PM