"It often happens that the mind of a person who is learning a new science, has to pass through all the phases which the science itself has exhibited in its historical evolution." (Stanislao Cannizzaro, Italian chemist, 1826 - 1910).
These words had a powerful resonance for Oliver Sacks. When the gifted neurologist wrote his autobiography, he also wrote a history of chemistry as recapitulated through his own childhood experiences. He grew up in a very scientific family--his mother and father were physicians, and his uncle Dave (the 'Uncle Tungsten' of the title) was both a chemist and a business entrepreneur, who "would spend hundreds of hours watching all the processes in his factories: the sintering and drawing of the tungsten, the making of the coiled coils and molybdenum supports for the filaments, the filling of the bulbs with argon..."
Uncle Tungsten allowed his nephew to perform chemical experiments in his laboratory, which contained samples of almost every element. Oliver's "physics uncle," Uncle Abe had a small telescopic observatory on top of his house, where he demonstrated the wonders of spectroscopy to his nephew: "The whole visible universe--planets, stars, distant galaxies--presented itself for spectroscopic analysis, and I got a vertiginous, almost ecstatic satisfaction from seeing familiar terrestrial elements out in space, seeing what I had known only intellectually before, that the elements were not just terrestrial but cosmic, were indeed the building blocks of the universe."
No wonder young Oliver grew up with a love for the elements and their chemistry!
Rarely do I read an autobiography and envy the author his childhood--most recent examples of this genre, e.g. "A Child Called 'It'" are grim, wailing texts--and that's not to say that Oliver didn't have his bad moments, too. He endured two horrible years at a Dickensian boarding school while London was being bombed by the Germans.
For the most part though, his formative years were spent in a fantastic 'castle of the elements' where his "many uncles and aunts and cousins served as a sort of archive or reference library" to his enquiring mind.
In "Uncle Tungsten," Dr. Sacks shares his learning experiences with us and in the process, writes a far more lucid history of chemistry and physics than any I've ever found in a textbook. He also takes his readers on a mesmerizing, personalized tour of the elements. If you enjoyed P.W. Atkin's quirky "The Periodic Kingdom" or Primo Levi's wonderful memoir "The Periodic Table," I can almost guarantee you'll fall in love with "Uncle Tungsten."