Uncle Tungsten

Oliver Sacks ★★★★★

Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

I am quite fond of the books of Oliver Sacks, and this one is no exception.

Half autobiography, half history of chemical sciences, this book is made up of childhood stories and accounts of chemical discoveries. The two worlds, boyhood and history of science, are not sharply divided, but carefully intertwined, and Sacks, with a very good sense of balance, finds a way to never bore the reader with either of them.

I equally enjoyed reading the family memories and the scientific parts, as they somehow complement each other. The childhood anecdotes are sometimes light-hearted, sometimes sober, or even sinister. Living in London during the second World War, being Jewish, having two physician parents and two scientifically-minded uncles all play major roles in them.

As for the scientific descriptions (some relating how some elements and their compounds were discovered, some telling about interesting experiments), I devoured them just as well - it is a fascinating read which gives you and appetite for chemistry.


We mixed potassium perchlorate with sugar, put it on the back step, and banged it with a hammer. This caused a most satisfying explosion.

I was reassured when I learned that the core of the earth consisted of a great ball of iron – this sounded solid, something one could depend on.

I received a school report that said, ‘Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.’

When I was five, I am told, and asked what my favorite things in the world were, I answered, ‘smoked salmon and Bach.’ (Now, sixty years later, my answer would be the same.)