Critical Analysis of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten

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In Oliver Sack’ autobiography Uncle Tungsten, we learn about a unique and curious young boy whose childhood and upbringing seem to be shaped by science and numbers. Through the influence of his family, especially his uncle, Oliver’s passion for science blossoms into something much more than a hobby, but rather an outlet where he finds meaning and purpose during some of the most challenging times of his childhood. Although devoting the majority of his childhood to working with his uncle and conducting his own experiments, Oliver’s love for chemistry began to fade as he grew older. Despite his eventual loss of interest, chemistry nevertheless served as the core of Oliver’s being which invaded every aspect of his life.

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From the beginning of the novel, the reader learns about Oliver’s scientific background from his specific interest in metals and curiosity of the world around him. Oliver’s interest in science is no surprise after the reader learns that his parents are doctors, his aunt is a botanist, and his uncle is a physicist. Science, mathematics, and academia in general are obviously a passion that has been shared amongst Oliver’s entire family. Oliver also specifically focuses on his grandfather, who seemed to initiate the passion for the sciences in Oliver’s family. Oliver’s grandfather fled Russia to avoid being drafted into the Cossak army using a fake passport of a deceased man named Marcus Landau. He eventually moved to England where he developed a love for science and became a surgeon. Oliver’s grandfather was also very passionate about the science education of children, perhaps also igniting Oliver’s love for the sciences. Oliver’s Uncle Tungsten is one of the last family members to be introduced in this novel, although he is arguably the most important. Uncle Tungsten, also known as Uncle Dave, manufactures lightbulbs at his own firm called Tungstalite. Uncle Tungsten also has a bit of an obsession with metals and minerals, an interest that will later be handed down to Oliver. Despite the book being named after him, Uncle Tungsten is perhaps the biggest influence on Oliver and his passion for science and lab work. Nevertheless, Oliver’s family played a crucial role in his upbringing as well as developing his love for science.

As a result of the war, London is expected to be bombed which forces Oliver and his brothers to relocate schools in Braefield. Oliver’s time spent in Braefield served as a crucial point in his life as he faced many challenges and tests of his character. He was beaten by his teacher, he questioned his faith that his family had always taken so seriously, and his obsession with numbers began to grow. Oliver specifically describes a time in which he was being beaten by his teacher and did not even view her as a human being, but only atoms, which illustrates Oliver’s changing perspective and outlook on the world. Oliver then attends Lawrence College which was much different and less familiar than Braefield. Oliver’s faith continues to be tested around his Christian colleagues who attend church on Sunday mornings, unlike his Jewish friends in Braefield. As a result, Oliver feels as though he does not fit in with the people around him and in the midst of the toll that the war is taking on him, he takes refuge in science which serves as the companion that he is so desperately searching for. Upon returning to London after World War II, Oliver quickly notices how much damage the war has done. Everything has changed and seems so foreign. However, Uncle Tungsten’s firm seems to be the only place that outlasted the war. It was during this time, upon returning from the war, that Oliver and his uncle Tungsten bonded through their mutual love for science, specifically metals and minerals. It was also during this time that Uncle Tungsten shared his love for lightbulbs with Oliver, their evolution from candles, and teaching him the significance of tungsten in a light bulb. Upon Oliver’s return to school, he joins the Cub Scouts in an effort to make some new friends. He was ultimately kicked out of the cub scouts for using cement instead of flour in an attempt to make a damper. As a result of his mistake, one of the leaders broke two teeth after biting into it and Oliver was humiliated by his peers. Once again, Oliver is left isolated and his indifference from those around him is more apparent than ever.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about how critical of a role Oliver’s Uncle Tungsten played in his love for chemistry and lab work. Although some of his other family occasionally shared some of their interests with him, his only true passion derived from working and learning with his Uncle Tungsten. At this point in the novel, the reader also learns a bit more about Oliver’s relationship with his father. Oliver describes his dad as very emotionless and unexpressive. Oliver spent the majority of his time with his father on house calls and swimming trips. In short, Oliver’s relationship with his father was not ideal, which is ultimately expected due to the hardships of the war.

Throughout the next few chapters of the novel, Oliver really develops as a scientist and dives a little deeper into his own research and experimentation. He develops his own lab, performs his own experiments, studies from people such as Humphry Davy, John Dalton, Robert Bunsen, and Gustav Kirchoff just to name a few that he specifically mentions. Although developing and learning more on his own, he continues to learn from his uncle Tungsten as well as his scientifically sound family. Throughout his own experimentation, Oliver specifically takes interest in photography and batteries. He eventually develops his own photos using different chemicals and creates his own batteries using fruits and vegetables. As Oliver develops as a chemist and continues his studies and experimentation, he is most deeply impacted by Mendeleev’s work of the periodic table when visiting a museum. Upon his encounter with the huge periodic table at the museum, Oliver begins to see the elements diversity and uniqueness. Oliver is also astounded at Mendeleev’s work of the periodic table in how the elements are arranged and the predictability of the properties without even knowing the element. I believe Oliver’s perspective on the periodic table can also symbolize the world and the people who make it up, each individual uniquely diverse from the other. This yet again displays how Oliver’s mind works through numbers, and how he can make practical connections to his life through chemistry. This is personally one of my favorite parts in the novel, as Oliver’s passion for chemistry is perfectly illustrated through his amazement of this periodic table.

Oliver brings this novel to a close by describing some memories from his childhood that had a lasting impact on him. He begins speaking about his mother and how she was a timid lady outside of her job. Oliver describes one particular time in which he dissected a 14-year-old girl with his mother, and how it emotionally scarred him due to their similarity in age. He also describes an experiment that he and his friend Jonathan conducted on a cuttlefish that went terribly wrong. The cuttlefish experiment ultimately ended in its fermentation which stunk up Jonathans whole house.

Throughout this novel, it becomes very apparent to the reader where Oliver experiences his greatest joy and delight- chemistry and experimentation. He specifically pays respect to Rutherford and Curies at the end of the novel for developing the foundation of his love for the sciences. However, as Oliver continues to grow and mature, his love for chemistry fades as he stops visiting his Uncle Tungsten as frequently and his lab collects dust.

Oliver Sacks struggles with a multitude of challenges throughout his childhood whether it be the effect of war, struggles with his faith, or his obvious indifference to those around him. Throughout these hardships, Oliver ultimately takes refuge in chemistry, where he finds purpose and fulfillment. The greatest connection I can make between Oliver Sacks childhood and his experience with chemistry is in one particular time in the novel where he began to enjoy the odor of metals as well as other things. I believe this most accurately symbolizes Oliver’s indifference to those around him as he realizes that what others think is smelly, he enjoys and appreciates. Similarly, in his encounter with the massive periodic table, he describes finally seeing each element as “eighty odd dishes”; although all grouped together, each element is diverse and unique. This is one of Oliver’s deepest connections because like an element, he realizes even though he may be different from those around him, he is uniquely diverse. In conclusion, Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten is a perfect representation of how chemistry can directly correlate and invade our everyday lives, as it did in his childhood. Personally, as a college student who is not a science major and initially struggled when introduced to the sciences, it is truly inspiring to see a passion for something that is much different from my own. Although my passions and interests are very different than that of Oliver Sacks, when learning about his indifferences to those around him, it challenged me to look within myself at my own indifferences with those around me. Although we may be different, we all have our own unique passions that we find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in and this is ultimately what groups us all together. After reading this novel, I can appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of myself as well as the people around me a little more, which I believe is Sacks’ underlying message in this novel.

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