Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on December 24, 2001
From sodium to radium to quantum mechanics, this basically autobiographical book tells the story of not only Oliver Sacks life between the ages of basically 4 and 15, but also tells the story of his discovery of the world of Chemistry and Physics and of what the world is composed.
Sacks starts by describing his life as almost a nightmare of incompassion. Living in wartorn London during the Second World War, his school life was filled with horror and pain. But the young Sacks retreated mentally into a world of mathematics, chemistry and physics. From Fibonacci mathematical series to the history of the building of the periodic chart of the elements, Sacks describes not only the discoveries of chemists from Newton through Nils Bohr, but also his incredible empirical chemical experiments. He reveals some basic chemical facts, known truly only to real chemists, despite what basic chemistry one might have had in school, his revelations are truly breathtaking and amazing in some cases.
And as he describes his experiences with life and chemistry, he also tells of the uncertainty that is generated by the search for certainty and stability. While never actually mentioning it by name, he does reference Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which says that one can know either the velocity or the position of an electron orbiting a atomic nucleus, but one can never know both simultaneously. In many ways it was this uncertainty and Einstein's theory of relativity, that in effect says that everything is relative to your particular frame of reference, that made Sacks progress from his fascination with science and mathematics into a new real world of Biology and Medicine. But, although the discoveries of the great physicists of the 1920's introduced tremendous uncertainty, that is, matter is both a particle and a wave, electrons are never totally predictable and radioactive substances deteriorate at a precise rate, whose half life can be specifically determined, but that precision does nothing to predict exactly the fate of any specific atom. Each atom's existence is determined virtually by chance in a radioactive substance and each can last for a fraction of a second or for 100 million years, until the event that causes it to finally deteriorate actually occurs. Those selfsame discoveries do in fact, lend stability to life in their instability.
Forever after, Sacks would be influenced in his life by those early experiments and discoveries, as well as what he learned by reading about the discoveries of others. And, even to this day, he still sees the world in terms of those early concepts of chemistry, which so infused his boyhood with meaning and substance. A tremendous work, recommended to anyone who has a curious mind and a yearning for finding the meaning of existence.
12 people found this helpful
Report abuse Permalink

Product Details

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5
330 global ratings