Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Uncle Tungsten and Australian madnesses

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”. This featured in Spielberg’s recent Minority report to good effect.

Just read:

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.

This is a very enjoyable book. It is a mix of about three parts science history to two parts autobiography, and Sacks does both very well. The story of his childhood is an interesting one, being set in war-time London and England, in a well-to-do household (servants), in a Jewish extended family.

It’s a mix of autobiography and science because science was a very importannt part of Sacks’s childhood. He became quite obsessed with chemistry and did all sorts of neat experiments. (Sacks mentions in passing that many of these would now be impossible for a child to do. The chemicals involved are so dangerous that no-one would sell them to children over the counter.) Sacks was encouraged in his hobby by his family, and particularly by two uncles. One of these is the Uncle Tungsten of the title, a man who part-owned a light-bulb factory, and who had lots of tungsten (used in filaments) on hand to show his nephew.

Sacks frames his scientific stories with plenty of background about the science he was investigating. So, the reader is treated to descriptions of the famous chemists of the past (Lavoisier, Priestley, Mendeleev, among others) and the work they did. This material is written engagingly and held my interest, though much of the material will inevitably be familiar to anyone sufficiently well-educated in popular science.

There is also room for quite a bit of material that is completely unrelated to chemistry, and describes episodes in Sacks’s life as he grows up. He has quite a traumatic time when sent away to the country to be safe from German bombing attacks on London, for example. There’s all sorts of family life described, and I found this all quite fascinating. People’s lives are usually pretty interesting to read about, and Sacks writes about them very well, and often very amusingly.

Definitely recommended.

To review next:

Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.

I heard on the news this morning that the Australian government had to act quickly yesterday to stop 13 Turks who landed on Melville Island in the Northern Territory from applying for refugee status. The Governor-General was called away from the Melbourne Cup stadium so that he could do his bit on the Executive Council and approve a new regulation to excise Melville Island from those bits of Australia where immigrants can apply for refugee status. I don’t know why they don’t just require wannabe refugees to present themselves to the debating chamber of the House of Representatives in Canberra.

And what about this Melbourne Cup madness? The whole country seemed obsessed by it yesterday. Lead stories in the radio news bulletins were about this, and work-places had special afternoon sessions to watch it on TV. How anyone can get in the least bit excited about horse racing is beyond me.