Oliver Sacks memoir "Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" can’t be a typical picture of a boy growing up in 1940′s wartime England. Could there have been many boys with physician parents and multiple scientific uncles? How many boys kept a live octopus in a bathtub, then dissected it after its untimely death by broomstick? How many boys, at 14, were asked to learn human physiology by dissecting the leg of a deceased 14 yr old girl ? How many purchased gutta percha bottles of hydrofluoric acid at their local chemist?
I don’t care if it was typical. It was a fascinating read (all three times). Sacks has been profiled recently and not so recently in WIred, and is well-known for his case-studies and the movie Awakenings. This memoir allows him to study his own case, recognizing the pain of wartime years in a brutal boarding school and warmly remembering the hours spent at the side of Uncle Tungsten.
Sacks introduced me to a wide range of his ‘uncles’, from his maternal uncles, Abe and Dave (metallurgy, physics, chemistry and spectroscopy) to giants in Chemistry like Scheele, Lavoisier, Davy (a particular friend of mine since I acquired an oxy-acetylene torch) and Lockyer. His fascination with these pioneers rubbed off on me and I enjoyed following him as he recreated many of their experiments and explained their impact on their fields.
Reading of Lavoisier and the "pneumatic" chemists who preceded him stimulated me to experiment more with heating metals and making oxygen. . . by heating mercuric oxide– the way Priestly had first made it in 1774– . . .I made other gases too. I decomposed water, using electrolysis; and then I recomposed it, sparking hydrogen and oxygen together.
Unless you know about folks like these, your twelve-year old won’t get their hands on quite the same mix of elements and chemicals but it may trigger some good discussion. I recommend the book.
If you are reading this and your childhood was marked by the influence of many ‘science uncles’ or you’ve read similar accounts, post to the comments or drop me an email. I’m hoping to find some books my 7 yr old can tear through that may increase his interest and his knowledge of science.