Uncle Tungsten

 

by Oliver Sachs

 

(Alfred A. Knopf)

 

Oliver Sachs is the neurologist who has written a number of remarkable essays about those strange brain-based maladies like Tourette's Syndrome in books with equally odd titles like An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Seeing Voices.

 

Now he has written a delightful memoir about his youth in England mostly during World War II entitled Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. The book struck a chord with me for my friend, Tom Killip, and I did some similar chemical experimenting when we were young. (Tom, much smarter than I, usually knew what he was doing; it was mostly magic to me.) Thus I delighted in passages like this one: "My first taste was for the spectacular -- the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs, which almost define a first entry into chemistry. One of my guides was J. J. Griffin's Chemical Recreations, an 1850ish book I had found in a second-hand bookshop. Griffin had an easy, practical, and above all playful style; chemistry was clearly fun for him, and he made it fun for his readers, readers who must often have been, I decided, boys like myself, for he had sections like 'Chemistry for the Holidays' -- this included the 'Volatile Plum Pudding' ('when the cover is removed . . . it leaves its dish and rises to the ceiling'), 'A Fountain of Fire' (using phosphorus -- 'the operator must take care not to burn himself'), and 'Brilliant Deflagration' (here, too, one was warned to 'remove your hand instantly')....

 

"Griffin suggested experiments with bleaching -- here I used my mother's bleaching powder in place of the chlorine water he suggested, and with this I bleached litmus paper, cabbage juice, and a red handkerchief of my father's. Griffin also suggested holding a red rose over burning sulfur, so that the sulfur dioxide produced would bleach it. Dipping it into water, miraculously, restored its color."

 

I recall in particular Tom having a powder that frothed violently, producing great quantities of gas, when we poured water on it. (I cannot now even recall the chemical involved.) We took a glass jar containing some of this powder to a bridge over a local creek. There we added water. The next step was to seal the jar and tip it over into the creek where we could watch it explode. Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- neither of us dared to screw on the jar cover for fear it would explode too soon.

 

Sachs experienced similar concern which he places in a wider context: "Chemical exploration, chemical discovery, was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck, in my reading, by the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens, or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs, and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent explosions or toxins. All the early investigators of phosphorus had burned themselves severely. Bunsen, investigating cacodyl cyanide, lost his right eye in an explosion, and very nearly his life....

 

"The Discovery of the Elements devoted an entire section to 'The Fluorine Martyrs'.... All the early experimenters, I read, 'suffered the frightful torture of hydrofluoric acid poisoning,' and at least two of them died in the process....

 

"I was fascinated by reading this history, and immediately, recklessly, wanted to obtain fluorine for myself. Hydrofluoric acid was easy to get: Uncle Tungsten used vast quantities of it to 'pearl' his lightbulbs, and I had seen great carboys of it in his factory in Hoxton. But when I told my parents the story of the fluorine martyrs, they forbade me to experiment with it in the house. (I compromised by keeping a small gutta-percha bottle of hydrofluoric acid in my lab, but my own fear of it was such that I never actually opened the bottle.)

It was really only later, when I thought about it, that I became astonished at the nonchalant way in which Griffin (and my other books) proposed the use of intensely poisonous substances. I had not the least difficulty getting potassium cyanide from the chemist's, the pharmacy, down the road -- it was normally used for collecting insects in a killing bottle -- but I could rather easily have killed myself with the stuff. I gathered, over a couple of years, a variety of chemicals that could have poisoned or blown up the entire street, but I was careful -- or lucky."

 

This book is far more than a collection of childish pranks, although there are plenty of them. (Octopuses play a hilarious role in two of his stories.) Rather, the book provides a good overview of elementary chemistry together with wonderful historic background. Here, for example, is a small segment of his review of the Curies' work: "With no plausible external source of energy, the Curies were forced to return to their original thought that the energy of radium had to have an internal origin, to be an 'atomic property' -- although a basis for this was hardly imaginable. As early as 1898, Marie Curie added a bolder, even outrageous thought, that radioactivity might come from the disintegration of atoms, that it could be 'an emission of matter accompanied by a loss of weight of the radioactive substances -- a hypothesis even more bizarre, it might have seemed, than its alternatives, for it had been axiomatic in science, a fundamental assumption, that atoms were indestructible, immutable, unsplittable -- the whole of chemistry and classical physics was built on this faith. In Maxwell's words: 'Though in the course of ages catastrophes have occurred and may yet occur in the heavens, though ancient systems may be dissolved and new systems evolved out of their ruins, the [atoms] out of which these systems are built -- the foundation stones of the material universe -- remain unbroken and unworn. They continue to this day as they were created -- perfect in number and measure and weight.'

 

"All scientific tradition, from Democritus to Dalton, from Lucretius to Maxwell, insisted upon this principle, and one can readily understand how, after her first bold thoughts about atomic disintegration, Marie Curie withdrew from the idea, and (using unusually poetic language) ended her thesis on radium by saying, 'the cause of this spontaneous radiation remains a mystery...a profound and wonderful enigma.'"

 

Sachs proves himself as adept in personal history and in chemistry as he has in neurology. I wish I had this book when I was a youngster first gaining interest in chemistry.-- Gerry Rising