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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 82-83 ( 21 February )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/burch.html

Book Review

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
by Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf (US); Picador (UK), 2001

Reviewed by Druin Burch * 

Sacks is best known as a story-telling neurologist. His usual form is the extended clinical anecdote, often of someone afflicted by a bizarre sounding disorder. It is a form akin to biography, tracing the interaction between a person’s life and their deranged neurophysiology, and encouraging the reader to take an interest in both. Sacks’ case studies always verge dangerously on the allure of the freak-show, relying on the fact that reflected in the garish circus mirrors are the distorted forms of recognisable reality. ‘Uncle Tungsten’ is a case study of Sacks’ own childhood mind, and a story as odd as any of his previous ones. We hear about the professional beginnings of a neurologist, of an early interest in migraines and in how the brain builds up images and moving pictures - but mainly we hear about chemistry.

Initially, it is disappointing. The book reads like an autobiographical plan or sketch; a series of notes not yet infused with life. Sacks writes like an old man, like one nostalgic for the feelings of youth in a vague stumbling kind of way, but unable to summon back splendour to the grass or glory to the flower. Descriptions are introduced and then puzzling abandoned, like that of the burning Crystal Palace. “…all around the burning palace the night sky was lit up in a wild and beautiful way,” Sacks says, as though about to tell us about the experience. But instead he moves on, like a shy child who has invited our interest but cannot bear it when it is offered to him. For a great deal of time one feels the story should be leading up to something. Sacks, ravaged by separation from his parents during the Blitz, at one stage hides under a table and shaves off some of his hair. The experience feels as inexplicable to the grown writer as it once was to his parents. It feels as though part of Sacks is still hiding under the table, trapped in a strange frightening world of his own of which he can only hint. He takes an octopus for a pet and is convinced of its fondness for him. The octopus, frightened by a maid poking it with a stick, drowns in its own ink. Sacks dissects it. He describes “tender memories” of a later pet: a tree fern. There is a gruesome account of being forced by parental expectation into medicine, and inducted into human anatomy as a fourteen year old boy who is ushered into the dissecting room and given the body of a fourteen year old girl to cut up. This account is immediately preceded by a description of his obstetrician mother bringing home dead malformed fetuses to the house and insisting that Sacks, then eleven, dissect them. Some of these fetuses have been stillborn, others his mother has quietly drowned at birth. Sacks mentions his mother’s early concern about his fontanelles closing early, leaving him a microcephalic idiot. It seems not just octopi that are at risk in the bathtub.

It feels appropriate then that chemistry is portrayed as full of hints and hieroglyphs of a hidden world, a secure and stable one. These clues are amenable to investigation, to crystallisation, to distillation and fractionation. But at the last they escape, and in the dying of Sacks’ love for chemistry the pursuit of them is given up. His heartfelt identification with chemists fails when it starts to become physicists that provide the answers. His love of the subject dissolves when it is invaded by formal teaching. Sacks finally leaves chemistry behind, with a vague questioning as to why. He tells of another death of passion: “Another week passed, and another, and another, and something, I think, broke inside me at this point, for when they did come again, six weeks after their first visit, I did not run up to my mother or embrace her as I had the first time, but treated her coldly, impersonally, like a stranger.” Did something similar happen again? Or did loneliness recede enough for him to move on to warmer friends than chemistry, octopi and ferns?

Yet chemistry does come to warm life in his writing. Sacks suggests that the way to learn a subject is to go through it historically for oneself - a mental version of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny - and the account of him doing so is as lovely as it is riveting. He describes working out of the principles of elements and their nature. He tells of the basis of the periodic table coming to Mendeleyev in a dream, of the beautiful correlation between its periodicity and Bohr’s later theory of electron shells, of the dissolution of alchemy into chemistry and its wondrous re-emergence in modern physics. Each imaginative leap of a chemist feels as though it is answered by Chemistry revealing another piece of herself. All else in Sacks’ memoir is turbulent and elliptical, but while it lasts his love of chemistry has the stability and lustre of his favourite metal.

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© Druin Burch. 

* Druin Burch is a junior hospital physician and tutor in Human Sciences at Oxford.


Burch, D. (2002). Review of Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver W. Sacks. Human Nature Review. 2: 82-83.

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