Friday, April 25, 2008

Uncle Tungsten - Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (2001)

Sacks is a very well known neurologist and the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings. Sally asked for this book for her birthday a few years ago when she was in Vancouver, and I amazoned it over to her, so I never had a chance to read it. I have just taken advantage of her absence (in Canada again) to pillage her bookshelves and have finally read Uncle Tungsten .

In his childhood in London, Sacks was fascinated by chemistry, and was lucky to have a wide range of scientific uncles and aunts. His Uncle Dave had a lightbulb factory, and was obsessed with heavy metals like osmium, tantalum and particularly tungsten.

I was fascinated by this book, because it brought to life a subject I have always found fairly dull. Sacks had a home lab from the age of about 8, and could get his hands on any substance he wanted, either through his uncles or simply by going down to the chemist shop. He would read the lives of the great chemists such as Lavoisier and Davy, and repeat their experiments. He tossed chunks of sodium and potassium into tanks of water and watched them catch fire and spit globules everywhere. With his uncle Abe he mucked about with radium. These were the early days of knowledge about radiation. Everyone found the way radium made things glow in the dark utterly charming.

Among a staggering sweep of other things I learnt that four of the 118 elements are named after the village of Ytterby in Sweden; Ytterbium[Yb], Terbium[Tb], Erbium[Er] and Yttrium[Y]. (According to Wikipedia "Three other elements also trace their origin to the Ytterby quarry: Gadolinium [Gd]... Holmium [Ho]...and Thulium [Tm]")

Sacks has credited a huge reading list of books, ranging from the 18th century to the 1990s, with opening his eyes to the wonders of chemistry. I would like to follow up some of these now, and try to experience some of the enlightenment first-hand. I have heard of Humphry Davy and the Curies, their lives sound fascinating, and I am going to track down also Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffman.

The book end with Sacks (who now lives in New York) recounting his favourite dream of "going to the opera (I am Hafnium), sharing a box at the Met with the other heavy transition metals – my old and trusted friends – Tantalum, Rhenium, Osmium, iridium, Platinum, Gold and Tungsten."

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