Saturday, October 20, 2007
I am in the middle of re-reading Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sack's amazing memoir of his "chemical boyhood." His parents, both physicians, and his mother's 17 brothers and sisters, almost all of them involved in the sciences, encouraged young Oliver to experiment with substances (his favorites were the metals) that even back then, in 1930s and 40s London, were difficult to obtain. His uncle Dave, who manufactured lightbulbs with tungsten filaments, made his glassblowing ovens and other paraphenalia available to his obsessed nephew, and his "physics uncle" Abe had an attic that looked like Frankenstein's laboratory. Oliver's parents let him set up his own laboratory in an unused laundry off the back of the house, and when his concoctions got too stinky (and too noxious) for the house had a fume cupboard installed.
Oliver didn't just play around with chemicals and reactions; he also read extensively, working his way through texts and memoirs of the great discoverers of the elements. (His goal in life at that point, he says, was to grow up to be an eighteenth-century chemist). A periodic table at a nearby museum, containing actual samples of the elements, became an object of fascination for him. (The book inspired Theodore W. Gray to construct his own Wooden Periodic Table Table -seen below entertaining Sacks in his office - and to create this beautiful poster.)
This was the book that gave me the notion that studying chemistry might be fun. Reading it the first time, I paid more attention to Sacks' personal trials (including being sent to a sadistic country boarding school during the Blitz), and the insights I got into the wonder of chemistry came strictly through the author's descriptions of his feelings. This time, having gotten hold of some of the concepts involved for perhaps the first time, I'm appreciating just how much knowledge Sacks was able to absorb at such a young age through his reading, experimentation, and what he liked to think of as his "apprenticeship" to the scientists in the family.
I think Uncle Tungsten holds a special place in the hearts of many chemists. I know it does in mine.