EPS Review #48 - Uncle Tungsten

Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks. Knopf 2001

Like The Hot Zone, "Uncle Tungsten" is a book I bought (actually hinted to P that it would be an ideal Christmas present) because I loved the original New Yorker article. That article led me to buy (off Ebay) The Discovery of the Elements by Mary Elvira Weeks (7th edition 1968, 896pp), and I have since spent many an evening in bed reading about the Swede Berzelius isolating selenium from a sulphur mine, or how the French got iodine from seaweed, or how many researchers died young trying to isolate fluorine. There is something restful about it. I personally have fond memories of the photographic table of elements in the old Time-Life science book series. My favorite entry was Lutetium, a rare earth of no known use. I recently placed my old copy of that picture book in Ross's room. One day Ross brought me some lithium batteries, saying he wanted to get rid of them since the lithium was explosive, and anyway used in atomic bombs. I explained that lithium's explosive nature was purely chemical, based on the electrons in its outer shell. Ross silently padded off and returned with the book opened to a schematic diagram of a hydrogen bomb, complete with its lithium casing. Touché!

What about the book? The Economist put it on its top-of-the-year list, calling it a celebration of the intellectual life. Sacks comes from a brainy and musical Jewish family in NW London. Both his parents were doctors, and one of his uncles ran a light-bulb factory, hence the tungsten. Sacks had a terrible time during the war at a boarding school with a sadistic master. His brother actually went insane. His parents, though oblivious to his unhappiness at school, indulged him in all his scientific interests. He read quite old books at first, from the early days of chemistry, so that his memoir covers a history of the whole science, from Lavoisier's first inkling that there were elements (the guillotine got him before he could finish) through to Marie and Pierre Curie visiting their laboratory at night to marvel at its fairy glow (her lab notes, too dangerous to handle, are stored in lead bags). In between there are amazing personalities like Humphry Davy "the poet-chemist", or Cavendish, who insisted that his servants communicate to him only in writing. Through it all he duplicates their experiments, with such enjoyment that I felt like doing so, too. I am still looking for a zinc bar, so that Ross and I can put it in a copper sulphate solution and grow a gleaming copper "tree".

As Oliver grew, his parents encouraged him more towards medicine, even arranging for him to dissect a cadaver, that turns out, horrifically, to be a girl his own age, about fourteen. The last chapter is titled "The End of the Affair", starting with a scene on summer vacation, in the family car, where he discourses so unendingly on thallium that his father finally turns around and tells him to shut up about it.

"But it was not sudden -- I did not wake up one morning and find that chemistry was dead for me; it was gradual, it stole upon me bit by bit. It happened at first, I think, without my even realising it. It came upon me sometime in my fifteenth year that I no longer woke up with sudden excitements -- "Today I will get the Clerici solution! Today I will read about Humphry Davy and electric fish! Today I will finally understand diamagnetism, perhaps!" I no longer seemed to get these sudden illuminations, these epiphanies which Flaubert (whom I was now reading) called "erections of the mind." Erections of the body, yes, this was a new, exotic part of life -- but those sudden raptures of the mind, those sudden landscapes of glory and illumination, seemed to have deserted or abandoned me. Or had I, in fact, abandoned them? For I was no longer going to my little lab; I only realised this when I wandered down one day and saw a light layer of dust on everything there. I had scarcely seen Uncle Dave or Uncle Abe for months, and I had ceased to carry my pocket spectroscope with me."

One of the troubles with reading on a commuter train is that it is impossible to weep as freely as one might like. Sacks made me feel his love for chemistry, its special relation with the real world, and also reminded me of the purity of boyhood interests. I thought of how happy mathematics made me as a child, and how Ross feels about electricity. In the Afterword, Sacks relates how the clonk of a bar of sintered tungsten falling from an envelope started him writing this memoir and reliving his childhood passion, fifty years later. "The old enthusiasm surfaces every so often in odd associations and impulses: a sudden desire for a ball of cadmium, or to feel the coldness of diamond against my face." I would call him the Geek Proust. I reckon I, too, need a pocket spectroscope now.

Carl wrote: If you want to see copper appear before your eyes, you don't have to wait for a rod of zinc..... a steel nail will do. You do need the copper sulfate, though. A little sulfuric acid in the solution at the same time will help keep the copper shiny (while it's plating).

You might be able to get some [acid] at the drug store ("druggist"?). I used to be able to get all kinds of stuff there which no one can buy anymore. Pure sodium bromide. In MY chemical childhood, I could even go to a chemical supply house and buy whatever I could trade for money, which my Mom gave me. Mercury. Potassium nitrate. 100% sulfuric acid. Unheard of anymore.

When my Dad was a teenager, he got some of this stuff on him when he was working at the telegraph office, because they had lead/ acid batteries there. He could have burned his arm off.

I write: Ross and I tried this. The nail sat in the solution for weeks and weeks, but just turned black and stank. :-(

Ravi wrote: Superbly written. V might be a little young for the anatomical detail, but I will buy it for myself.

Scott wrote: The Sachs book Uncle Tungsten sounds great; I was hooked on chemistry when I was a kid, and threw it over for math and computing

Steve wrote: Of your many wonderful reviews I like this one the most so far and so I am -- finally -- moved to write to say thanks. This is one book I'll get. I am not having the same flashes of remembrance that you seem to be having about childhood passions -- and I could use a catalyst for them! I was a member of the Berzelius "secret society" at Yale my senior year -- the earliest co-ed group, enlightened, fun, with the group symbol being a triangular shaped vacuum tube in which perhaps tungsten was used/refined/revealed.

Your review of the Patric book about travels in China also has prompted me to do a search at "Borders", only to find that it is not really re-printed but might be available, used, through a book finder, which I think I'll try.

If history grabs you, I do suggest Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis, which offers one of the best frameworks for understanding the various bargains struck to make the American Experiment work in the decades following the Revolution. Great stuff on The Duel (Hamilton-Burr), the Dinner (hosted by Washington in New York for Hamilton, Madison & Jefferson), and the Silence (over slavery -- where the founders essentially agreed to punt).

Neil wrote: cool review - clearly practising for the next day job

Jon wrote: Did I tell you that my first undergraduate summer job was sintering tungsten for the Ministry of Defence?

Nick wrote: That pure feeling of beauty when I first encountered algebra ... it is hard to find that old enthusiasm. Though seeing M get fascinated by the simplest things -- crinkling paper, a new way of making sound -- brings backs youth and innocence.

Ewan wrote: I have (of course) ordered the book and I too want a pocket spectroscope!