Sunday, June 9, 2013

Uncle Tungsten - Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a chemical boyhood

I've been reading the non-fiction of Oliver Sacks for many years.  He is  neurologist and writes about how our brains work or in some cases don't work.  He's probably most well-known as the author of Awakenings, his memoir of treating victims encephalitis with L-dopa, that was made into a movie with Robin Williams.  I highly recommend any of his books for a layman's understanding of the miracle that is our brains.

This book is the story of his early childhood, growing up in England during WWII.  He was fascinated with chemistry and up until age 14, the story chronicles his learning and experiments.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I re-learned what little chemistry I remembered and marveled at the evolution of a young child's learning of a complex subject.  Most impressive is the atmosphere of learning in his household.  Every adult in his family and his older brothers encouraged his curiosity, answering his questions, demonstrating the properties of chemicals and never treating him as incapable of grasping the information.  I felt the story provided a model for exposing young children to science and math and letting them learn through exploration and experimentation.

Sacks' parents were both doctors and his one Uncle manufactured tungsten light bulbs, among other products.  Like his two brothers, Oliver was expected to become a doctor and so at puberty turned to biology and the medical sciences.

Some chosen quotes I noted during reading:

p. 27 "Auntie Len always delighted me by showing me all sorts of botanical and mathematical pleasurs.  She showed me the spiral patterns on the faces of sunflowers..and suggested I count the florets in these...[and] pointed out that they were arranged according to a series...this series, she said, was called a Fibonacci series."

p. 48 [on experimenting with light] ...a material that would shine with special brillance...was calcia - calcium oxide, or lime.  This "limelight", Uncle Dave said, was discovered in the 1820's and used to illuminate the stages in theaters for many decades".  Hence "being in the limelight".

His ongoing experiments with chemicals revealed the structure of the periodic table and led to his grasp of atomic weight, atomic number and the elegant order of the elements.

If ever there was an example of encouraging learning in a young mind, this book provides it.

Published: 2001  Read: May 2013   Genre: Memoir

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