In 1939, a six-year-old Oliver Sacks was dispatched to a Dickensian country boarding school to escape the impending German bombing of London. Four years later, Sacks was finally summoned home, psychically wounded by ritual caning, isolation, and perceived abandonment. At this moment, Sacks began a boy’s steadfast affair with chemistry and, specifically, the elements of the periodic table. He recalls, “The feeling of the elements’ stability and invariance was crucial to me psychologically, for I felt them as fixed points, as anchors, in an unstable world.”
Now a neurologist and celebrated author (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings), Sacks rekindles his zeal for the fundamental science in Uncle Tungsten, a seamless interweaving of childhood memoir, family saga, and chemical history. Sacks’s youthful obsession with chemical tinkering was tolerated or even outrightly supported by his physician parents, who granted a spare room for a makeshift laboratory (and eventually bought Sacks an exhaust hood!). But Sacks was also notably inspired by the wealth of knowledge (and chemical supplies) provided by a number of close relations, including the titular uncle—whose factory-made lightbulbs bore filaments of the durable element.
The juvenile Sacks fancifully extended his connections to the chemical giants of earlier centuries: Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry; John Dalton, the progenitor of atomic design; and Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table. But Sacks held particular affection for Humphrey Davy, the great English poet–chemist, who gained immortality in 1807 by isolating potassium and sodium with the new-fangled power of electricity. Sacks writes, “One of my greatest delights was to repeat Davy’s original experiments in my own lab, and I so identified with him that I could almost feel I was discovering these elements myself.” A young Sacks strove to mirror the feats of a prior age by “recapitulating, the history of chemistry in myself, rediscovering all the phases through which it had passed.”
Entering adolescence, Sacks faced radical knowledge that shook his ideal of rigid elemental identity: the transmuting power of radioactivity. He initially viewed the metamorphic force in radium as a kind of betrayal and later grappled with the concept of identity, both atomically and psychically. The 12-year-old Sacks was wildly ambivalent about radioactivity’s applications, culminating in the Hiroshima bombing: He felt “jubilation” at the splitting of the atom but adds, “The atomic bombs shook me, as they did everybody. Atomic or nuclear physics, one felt, could never again move with the same innocence and lightheartedness…” Sacks then began his farewell bid to a boyish fantasy of a fixed and pure existence. His elegantly crafted Uncle Tungsten begs a follow-up.