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A passion for discovery
on 21 December 2003
Oliver Sacks was gifted by his parents with the greatest boon any child could receive. From the start, he writes, he was "encouraged to interrogate, to investigate". With this mandate, he spent his childhood interrogating the history of science and scientists. He investigated the nature of chemicals, learned magnetism and electricity, and, in preparation for his anticipated medical career, probed into the mysteries of the body. This exquisite and frank account traces Sacks' boyhood in London - with side pauses to the schools attended - exposing his fears and ambitions with equal fervour.
Sacks' quest for knowledge mainly focussed on chemical elements and compounds, with metals dominating his attention. "Uncle Tungsten" [his uncle Dave] owned a lamp factory and provided both advice and materials. Sacks drew heavily on his expertise, but Dave often left him to experiment on his own. With a highly inquisitive mind and a drive to learn, Oliver often duplicated the research performed by notable figures of science to achieve the same ends. This technique provided great insight into the scientific method, allowing him to manufacture chemicals that might have been purchased at a nearby shop.
He learns the scientists' techniques through the blizzard of printed paper he plowed through during those years. Biographies, autobiographies, published journals and notebooks, all were his reading fare throughout his boyhood. He reminds us of the hazards of research from the burned hands and faces from potassium to the still-radioactive notebooks of Marie Curie, today stored in lead boxes. Setting up a laboratory in a back room of the family home, he followed their reasoning, their sense of discovery, and their techniques as he made bangs, smells, brilliant lights and beautiful crystals. His biological endeavours were often less successful. He and his chums once drove the inhabitants of a house away for months until the noxious odour of rotting cuttlefish could be exorcised.
Although Sacks introduces a wealth of scientific information from a broad sweep of sources, there is not a dull page in this book. He describes the techniques to isolate elements in vivid detail, and you find yourself sharing the researcher's frustration to achieve the goal along with the exhilaration when success is achieved. You follow Sacks willingly as he plods through the museums and into shops buying chemicals. Mostly, you watch him as he begs Uncle Dave for materials or sits spellbound as "Uncle Tungsten" describes the properties of metals. Sacks' joys at "re-learning" what others have done is infectious - he leaves you longing to repeat the experiments for yourself - only to learn, of course, that today's caution has sequestered the materials away to prevent you blundering into harm. That's a sad testimony, but Sacks' journey through time and place remains for us to gain some sense of what it must be like to undertake scientific adventures. Every schoolchild should be in possession of this book as parents encourage them to "investigate and interrogate". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]