Review: Uncle Tungsten

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2001

Summary: A memoir of Sacks boyhood and his explorations of chemistry encouraged by an uncle who used tungsten to manufacture incandescent bulbs.

I’ve enjoyed several of Oliver Sacks books recounting various neurological conditions and the workings of the human brain. I had not been aware of this book until receiving it as a gift. Sacks employs his gifts in telling the story of his childhood, and particularly his fascination with chemistry. In some ways, it came with the territory. His parents were both doctors, who saw patients at their home or permitted Oliver to come on house calls his father would make.

From childhood, Sacks was fascinated with metals and other substances, their color, their weight, how they responded to heating, to being combined with other chemicals. This fascination was fed by by his “Uncle Tungsten” a.k.a Uncle Dave. He was called Uncle Tungsten not only because he made incandescent lamps using tungsten wire, but because he was truly enamored of tungsten, thinking it quite a wonderful metal. He shared this wonder with young Oliver, as well as showing him other metals including aluminum and what happened when you applied mercury to its surface.

Eventually Uncle Tungsten showed him how to set up his own lab bench with the apparatus he needed and how to use it safely. Inevitably there were “stinks and bangs” including an episode with a cuttlefish that made a dwelling uninhabitable for a time. The story is one of curious, self-directed learning that studied spectra, chemical reactions, and families of elements. His discovery of the periodic table, Mendeleev’s Garden, helped make sense of why certain elements were similar in character to others, and even helped predict the character of elements yet to be discovered.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapters were those on “cold” light–fluorescent and phosphorescent elements–and that on X-rays and how they were produced. Here it was Uncle Abe who exposed him to things like radium, at a time when people were only beginning to understand the detrimental effects of radiation on the human body. He speaks of viewing a grain of radium through a spinthariscope and the “shooting stars” he saw through the eyepiece. One wonders if there was any connection between these youthful explorations and the ocular melanoma that resulted in Sacks death.

Sacks did not take up a career in chemistry, obviously. But in this memoir we see the curiosity that fueled his neurological research, his quest to understand how things worked. What a wonderful thing that there were adults in his life who nurtured that curiosity while allowing him the space to pursue self-directed learning. He was a “researcher” long before he became a researcher. And this led to the wonder beyond laws and equations and tables to memorize, the wonder of color, of order, of chemical reactions, and so much more. For Sacks, science became a matter of wonder and wondering.

In our own era of mistrust of science, one wonders if we’ve missed something in science education. What if, instead of mistrust of “authorities” we worked to foster curiosity and wonder? What if, instead of making pronouncements, we worked to foster curiosity? What if instead of endless encouragements of vaccines and masks, we invited curiosity about how COVID is so cussedly good at infecting its human hosts and what happens in the body when it does?

I don’t know if that would change any of our discussions, but I do wonder if a healthy dose of curiosity and wonder, like that which characterized Oliver Sacks “chemical boyhood,” might do us all a bit of good.