Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
Author : Oliver Sacks
From his earliest days, Oliver Sacks, the distinguished neurologist who is also one of the most remarkable storytellers of our time and the author of this illuminating and poignant memoir, was irresistibly drawn to understanding the natural world. Born into a large family of doctors, metallurgists, chemists, physicists, and teachers, his curiosity was encouraged and abetted by aunts, uncles, parents, and older brothers. But soon after his sixth birthday, the Second World War broke out and he was evacuated from London, as were hundreds of thousands of children, to escape the bombing. Exiled to a school that rivalled Dickens’s grimmest, fed on a steady diet of turnips and beetroots, tormented by a sadistic headmaster, and allowed home only once in four years, he felt desolate and abandoned.
When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life. He was sustained by his secret passions: for numbers, for metals, and for finding patterns in the world around him. Under the tutelage of his “chemical” uncle, Uncle Tungsten, Sacks began to experiment with “the stinks and bangs” that almost define a first entry into chemistry: tossing sodium off a bridge to see it take fire in the water below; producing billowing clouds of noxious-smelling chemicals in his home lab. As his interests spread to investigations of batteries and bulbs, vacuum tubes and photography, he discovered his first great scientific heroes, men and women whose genius lay in understanding the hidden order of things and disclosing the forces that sustain and support the tangible world. There was Humphry Davy, the boyish chemist who delighted in sending flaming globules of metal shooting across his lab; Marie Curie, whose heroic efforts in isolating radium would ultimately lead to the unlocking of the secrets of the atom; and Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table, whose pursuit of the classification of elements unfolds like a detective story.
Sacks, who is perhaps best known for his books ‘Awakenings’ (which became a Robin Williams/Robert De Niro vehicle) and ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’, invokes his childhood in wartime England and his early scientific fascination with light, matter and energy as a mystic might invoke the transformative symbolism of metals and salts. The “Uncle Tungsten” of the book’s title is Sacks’ Uncle Dave, who manufactured light bulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire, and who first initiated Sacks into the mysteries of metals. But as Sacks writes, the family influence extended well beyond the home, to include the groundbreaking chemists and physicists whom he describes as “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.” Family life exacted another enormous influence as well: his older brother Michael’s psychosis made him feel that “a magical and malignant world was closing in about him,” perhaps giving a hint of what led the author to explore the depths of psychosis in his later professional life.
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