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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Uncle Tungsten blends science, history

By Caroline D’Angelo
Published: 9:00 am, 19 November 2001
Modified: 4 pm, 11 January 2012
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Dr. Oliver Sacks is the chemistry teacher you wish you’d had in high school—the one who thinks every aspect of science is the most interesting thing in the world.

Last Thursday, Dr. Sacks read excerpts from his latest book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood to a sold out crowd at a University of Toronto Bookstore reading.

In his latest book, Dr. Sacks talks about his childhood growing up during World War II in London and his fascination with the chemical elements.

The Uncle Tungsten of the title was Dr. Sacks’ own uncle, a man who owned a light bulb factory in London, and thus had a lot of the rare metal on hand to initiate his young nephew’s instruction in inorganic chemistry.

Sacks’ story isn’t all chemical nostalgia.

During the war he and his brother were sent to a boarding school in the country, where the headmaster physically abused the students.

Returning to London, his brother became psychotic, and so a lot of Sacks’ obsession with chemistry came from a desire to shut out harsh reality

In person, Dr. Sacks is as idiosyncratic as he is on paper.

In honour of his title and the subject of his book, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the periodic table, with a suit jacket and dress pants.

During the reading, he paused in his narration, took the water bottle he’d been given and sprinkled the fern that he shared the stage with.

Dr. Sacks is best known for his work with patients with neurological disorders and how the diseases in their brains affect their personalities and outward characteristics. His previous books are based on his own experiences interviewing patients with different neurological conditions like autism, Tourette’s syndrome and encephalitis.

What sets Sacks apart from other scientific authors in his field is his ability to present the complicated neurological conditions of his patients in a clear and straightforward way without patronizing his readers.

Uncle Tungsten deals a lot with chemistry, and Dr. Sacks spendsa lot of time waxing nostalgic about making explosions and poisonous gases in the backyard laboratory his parents set up for him.

His interest in chemistry clearly went deeper, however, than just blowing things up.

Dr. Sacks talks about his fascination with how the elements in the periodic table behave in remarkably regular ways, and how all chemistry can be discussed in precise mathematical terms.

He would have made a terrific high school mentor.