52 Books Challenge: #27 Uncle Tungsten

Uncle Tungsten is an autobiography of the late Oliver Sacks who many of you will know as a neurologist. Perhaps you have read “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”, a comical yet tragic compilation of many of Dr Sacks’ professional cases, which I read during my own study and qualifying as a psychologist. But Dr Sacks was also a historian of science and his initial love of chemistry, indeed his obsession with it, is the focus of Uncle Tungsten and the early years of his life.

The book title is named after the nickname that Sacks gave to his uncle Dave who was the secretary of a company called Tungstalite who made lightbulbs with a tungsten filament. You may also like to know that Dr Sacks middle name is ……. Wolf ……. and it is probably no coincidence that the early scientific name for tungsten is Wolfram! It is through his interaction with uncle tungsten and his immediate family that his passion for science was nurtured and the book has several notable themes running throughout; his Jewish upbringing, parents who were medical professionals, an insatiable curiosity for chemistry, and last but not least an interest in many of the giants of chemistry including Boyle, Lavoisier, Davey, Dalton, Mendeleev, Rutherford and Bohr.

I found many parallels in this book with my own early life as a young child growing up on the coast of the English Lake District. At junior school we were encouraged to explore our environment of woodlands, meadows, rock formations, the seashore, each teeming with flowers, fungi, birds, insects and a wonderful range of wildlife. At grammar school a more serious study of science began, we had laboratories for chemistry, physics and biology and made visits to the local iron ore mine and ironworks to see science in action. I got my own chemistry set at 13 and extended its use through buying chemicals from the pharmacy/apothecary shop to make fireworks and …….. gunpowder. Oliver Sacks went way beyond my own experiences however because of his wider access to chemicals and the knowledge of his family and he tells many tales of “explosions and flames” with sodium and potassium, or of “the exploding cuttlefish” which he inadvertently caused at his friend Jonathan’s house which had to be cleaned and left empty for weeks afterwards. 

The parts I enjoyed most however were the chapters relating to the giants of chemistry, particularly because I already knew a fair bit about them, but also because I listened to the book narrated in Audible format. The narrator described in easily understood words the beginning of electrochemistry from Humphrey Davy, the development of our understanding of atoms and atomic structures from John Dalton, and my own favourite the mind shattering creation of The Periodic Table of Elements by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. And then, the extension of Mendeleev’s work by Nils Bohr who solved the final puzzle of atomic number, atomic structure and electron shells accounting for the periodicity of the Table rather than atomic weight. I was taken back to all of my chemistry education and gaining a PhD in this utterly delightful account of the history of modern science as lived through by Oliver Sacks and recommend this book to ANYONE irrespective of whether you are science educated or not. What’s not to like about learning of these giants of science who changed our planet and lives for the better, and as the author concludes:

“Beautiful, logical, simple, Gods abacus at work”


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