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A Metallic World

December 1st, 2010 by Jessika

Scratched copper plate. (Photo by Tymcode via Flickr)

I have always disliked chemistry. My high school chemistry class was horrible. The teacher, mean and incompetent, did nothing to inspire his students, and I ended up with a strong contempt for elements and compounds.  Much to my chagrin, I had to take a year of general chemistry and a year of organic chemistry (I was a biology major at the time) in college, and though my experiences were a little better, I failed to end up with an appreciation of the periodic table and complex organic molecules.

Several weeks ago, I decided to give chemistry another chance with the book Oliver Sacks’ book Uncle Tungsten. Within its pages I found a wondrous world of chemicals and metals I had never known before. Whether it was the childish enthusiasm conveyed in his words or the poetry of his writing, something drew me in.

I found myself particularly fascinated by his stories of growing up during World War I and World War II. It’s hard for me to imagine living in a place where air raid sirens were all too familiar much less being forced to attend a boarding school (where you were supposed to be safe from the war) where a regular practice was beatings. How could he survive that hardship and remain psychologically intact?

Sacks survived by retreating to chemistry and the wonders of nature. He used his imagination to escape the horrors while he was at Braefield (the boarding school), and he continued to use it when he was allowed to return home. His parents, who were both physicians, and uncles encouraged his explorations, giving Sacks the resources to conduct his own experiments and teaching him about all sorts of topics that ranged from dissection to batteries to tungsten.

Some of Sacks stories were shocking (they also made me somewhat jealous). He regularly went to the local chemical supply store where he could buy a wide range of compounds both harmless and toxic. He would use the chemicals to conduct experiments in the lab he set up at his parents’ house. His lab was like nothing I could have done at my age with a chemistry set. Sacks exploded chemicals, made compounds with noxious fumes and even burned his brother’s eyebrows off. Part of me thought his parents were irresponsible. Why would you let a young boy play around with corrosive acids? He could have killed himself. Another part of me wanted to be in his lab with him. I wanted to distill mercury from dental fillings and fragrances from plants. I wanted to make a battery out of an apple or a potato. I even wanted to dissect the cadaver and octopus. (He kept the octopus for a while as a pet in a bath tub while on vacation until the housekeeper discovered it, which resulted in its death.)

Uncle Dave especially encouraged Sacks’ curiosity, showing the young boy the different types of metals and teaching him about their properties. Sacks fondly remembered learning about the light bulbs his uncle made that used tungsten filaments. His uncle’s enthusiasm for tungsten lent itself to his nickname, Uncle Tungsten. Uncle Abe, who taught Sacks about spectroscopy, showed Sacks radium, which the pair of them experimented with. Now, I know not much was known about the negative affects of the radioactive elements at that time, but I still find it so surprising that these dangerous elements were so easy to come by. Sacks mentioned a store near his Uncle Dave’s lab that sold and advertised radium bromide and pitchblende, uranium ore. But his boyhood encounters with radium didn’t seem to have any negative affects on him. So, perhaps a little experimentation with uranium, polonium and radium is perfectly fine. If that’s, the case then I would definitely love to see them glow in the dark.

Some of the stories Sacks told in the book made me laugh out loud. I even had to retell the damper story. For a brief time, Sacks was in the cub scouts. His last cub scout assignment was to make a damper, a dense bread of sorts made with unleavened flour. When he went into the kitchen to look for flour he didn’t find any. So, he decided to use cement instead. The next day he presented his damper to the scoutmaster, who subsequently broke his tooth on the thing when he bit into it, kicking Sacks out of the cub scouts. I also laughed when Sacks mentioned that as a child he drank the glass of wine left out for Elijah during the Jewish seder service. His parents weren’t pleased when they found their son with a hangover and an empty glass the next morning.

In addition to entertaining me, this book really made me think. It made me think about my childhood. For Sacks, smells, colors and letters remind him of the metals he played with as a boy. Tungsten, of course, brings back memories of his Uncle Dave. For me, the smell of orange blossoms always makes me smile. I remember picking the oranges from the grove in the back of our house and running through the grove to climb on the big rock a little ways away. I often wonder what happened to my childhood. I remember being happy at times. But the smell of orange blossoms really is the only thing that sparks happy memories of my childhood.

“Uncle Tungsten” also made me see just how fabulous the world is. I never would have even remotely thought the periodic table of the elements beautiful, especially during chemistry class, but when I step back and really think about it, their is a sort of elegant simplicity about it. Here are these 118 or so elements. By themselves, they are simple. Together, however, they form some of the most breathtaking and deadly compounds . Mendeleev’s periodic table shows us so much. Sacks described the table this way: “It was like a garden, the garden of numbers I loved as child–but unlike this, it was real, a key to the universe.”

This entire book was like an enchanted garden. Each part of it, revealed some wondrous secret. It was colorful with its brilliant metallic salts of yellow and purple and fragrant with its stinky sulfuric compounds and synthetic pear drops. The deeper I dove into it, the longer I wanted to stay. But sadly it did come to an end. Though, now I know an entirely new and exciting world awaits me. A world where even the simplest thing, like the graphite in a pencil, has so much more meaning.

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