Growing Up Among the Elements

London’s Science Museum in South Kensington was closed during the Second World War. When it reopened in 1945, the twelve-year-old Oliver Sacks discovered there the periodic table of the chemical elements. They were written in large letters on a wall, with samples of each element or one of its compounds attached to each name. That night Oliver could hardly sleep for excitement. To a boy who was already a keen amateur chemist, the revelation that the apparently disconnected properties of the elements could be fitted into a logical system gave the first sense of the power of the human mind. Sacks writes:

In that first, long, rapt encounter in the Science Museum, I was convinced that the periodic table was neither arbitrary nor superficial, but a representation of truths which would never be overturned, but would, on the contrary, continually be confirmed, show new depths with new knowledge, because it was as deep and simple as nature itself. And the perception of this produced in my twelve-year-old self a sort of ecstasy, the sense (in Einstein’s words) that “a corner of the great veil had been lifted.”

This sounds a little precocious for a twelve-year-old, but it reminded me of my own excitement when, as a student, I read Linus Pauling’s just-published book The Nature of the Chemical Bond. It transformed the empirical edifice of chemistry that I had been required to memorize into a science that could be understood, because it was based on fundamental properties of atoms, their sizes and charges, and the configurations of their electron shells, based on the new quantum mechanics.

The discoverer of the periodic system was the Russian chemist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. The romantic story of Mendeleev’s early career made him one of Sacks’s heroes. He was born in a small town in Siberia in 1834, the youngest of fourteen children. His father, the head of the local high school, went blind shortly after his birth and died not many years afterward. Dmitry’s mother recognized the boy’s outstanding talents and walked with the fourteen-year-old thousands of miles to Moscow to enroll him at the university there, only to learn that as a Siberian he was in-eligible for admission. The same happened in St. Petersburg, but there she finally found him a place in the Pedagogical Institute to train as a teacher.

Despite those setbacks, Mendeleev became professor of chemistry at the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg at thirty, and four years later professor at the university there. In the same year, aged thirty-five, he published the periodic table as part of his monumental Principles of Chemistry. Mendeleev had begun by ordering the eighty-one elements known at his time in sequence according to their atomic weights. He noticed that many of their chemical properties were repeated at regular intervals, which led him to order them into horizontal rows and vertical columns. He placed the two lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, at either end of the first row, followed by two rows of eight elements, like two octaves of musical chords, followed by three rows of eighteen. This left some vacant places where Mendeleev predicted new elements, which were later found.

There are profound physical reasons underlying the order, the periodicities, of Mendeleev’s table, but it it took another fifty years before Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of all time, discovered them. Oliver Sacks must have already absorbed an astonishing amount of chemical knowledge to have become so excited on seeing the table for the first time. Sacks calls the Principles the most delightful and vivid chemistry text ever published. Mendeleev’s romantic, magisterial, Victorian introduction sets the tone:

In comparing the science of the past, the present, and the future, in placing the particulars of its restricted experiments side by side with its aspirations after unbounded and infinite truth, and in restraining myself from yielding to a bias towards the most attractive path, I have endeavoured to incite in the reader a spirit of inquiry which, dissatisfied with speculative reasonings alone, should subject every idea to experiment, to encourage the habit of stubborn work, and to excite a search for fresh chains of evidence to complete the bridge over the bottomless unknown.1

Sacks writes that he devoured Mendeleev’s classic, but I wonder if he really absorbed its 1,168 pages.

Oliver Sacks’s parents were both doctors living in a large, comfortable brick house in northwest London. His father was an expansive, outgoing man. Like the young Lewis Thomas in The Youngest Science,2 Oliver sometimes went along on his father’s Sunday morning house calls. Sacks writes:

He loved doing housecalls more than anything else, for they were social and sociable as well as medical, would allow him to enter a family and home, get to know everybody and their circumstances, see the whole complexion and context of a condition. Medicine, for him, was never just diagnosing a disease, but had to be seen and understood in the context of patients’ lives, the particularities of their personalities, their feelings, their reactions.

…I loved to see him percuss the chest, tapping it delicately but powerfully with his strong stubby fingers, feeling, sensing, the organs and their state beneath. Later, when I became a medical student myself, I realized what a master of percussion he was, and how he could tell more by palpating and percussing and listening to a chest than most doctors could from an X-ray.

Unlike Lewis Thomas’s father, he did not tell his son how little he was able to do for most of his patients at a time before antibiotics became generally available. At home his father spent his leisure with ancient Hebrew texts rather than The Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine, which might have kept his medical knowledge up-to-date.

Oliver’s mother, a teacher of medicine, was the sixteenth of eighteen children, which provided him with about a hundred cousins, mostly living in London. The family was exceptionally gifted, and Oliver writes that his uncles and aunts were as good as a reference library. Uncle Yitzak was a radiologist, Uncle Abe a physicist, Uncle Dave a chemist, mineralogist, and metallurgist, Auntie Len an amateur botanist who told Oliver that God thinks in numbers, and this may have led to his early fascination with prime numbers. Uncle Dave ran a factory making tungsten filaments for electric light bulbs, hence the nickname that gave Sacks’s book its title. Oliver never knew his youngest uncle, because he had become an outcast, a nonperson whose name was never spoken again after he married a Gentile, a shiksa. Each year, Oliver’s father told his family that he was off to Wales on a slimming cure; he would return tanned, invigorated, but not much slimmer. It was only after his death that Sacks found the ticket stubs showing that he had in fact secretly visited his excommunicated brother in Portugal. Home was also a venue for meetings of Zionists, but their bullying manners turned Oliver into an enemy of Zionism, evangelism, and politicking of every kind for life.

Oliver describes his mother as intensely shy, a woman who retreated into silence or her own thoughts on social occasions, but an exuberant performer with her students (of surgery, anatomy, or histology?—Sacks does not say). He believes that she was drawn into medicine because it was part of natural history or biology and writes that she had a love of structure extending from plants to human anatomy. When Oliver was only eleven, she had him dissect malformed, stillborn babies. At fourteen she took him to the dissecting hall of the anatomy school of the Royal Free Hospital for Women and told him to dissect the leg of a fourteen-year-old girl. It was his first encounter with a corpse, and he spent a month on the task. He writes:

I lacked my mother’s powers of visualization, her strong mechanical and engineering sense, but I loved it when she talked of the foot and drew, in rapid succession, the feet of lizards and birds, horses’ hooves, lions’ paws, and a series of primate feet. But this delight in understanding and appreciating anatomy was lost, for the most part, in the horror of the dissection, and the feeling of the dissecting room spread to life outside—I did not know if I would ever be able to love the warm, quick bodies of the living after facing, smelling, cutting the formalin-reeking corpse of a girl my own age.

Oliver’s fascination with chemistry began as an escape from the aftermath of his traumatic school experiences during and after the war. His life at home had been happy until the war broke out in September 1939, when he was six years old; but then the government, fearful of immediate, devastating German air raids, decreed the evacuation of women and children from London. As a doctor, Oliver’s mother had to stay, so she sent Oliver and his elder brother Michael to a small boarding school in the Midlands that had just been set up. It was headed by a master who, faced with his new responsibilities, soon turned into a sadistic, avaricious monster. He beat many of the boys, Oliver included, almost daily. When he beat Oliver so hard that his cane broke, he sent the bill for a new one to his parents. He fed the boys on a diet of turnips and coarse beets grown for cattle. Sacks writes:

The horribleness of the school was made worse for most of us by the sense that we had been abandoned by our families, left to rot in this awful place as an inexplicable punishment for something we had done.

He felt trapped without hope, without recourse, forever. Yet on their rare visits, his parents noticed nothing. At home his mother had said a prayer with him before she kissed him goodnight, but here Sacks replaced his childhood religion with a raging atheism, a fury with God for not existing, not taking care, for allowing the war with all its horrors to occur.

When the school finally closed because most other parents had withdrawn their children, Oliver and Michael’s parents sent them to another boarding school where the bullying drove Michael insane. Sacks does not say whether he ever recovered. Oliver withdrew into a world of fantasy, telling the other nine-year-olds, not unreasonably, that his parents had thrown him out as a small child and that he had been brought up by a she-wolf. The parents finally realized that he was on the brink and took him home to London, where he recovered.

Despite those haunting experiences, I found no hint of resentment of his parents in Sacks’s book. On the contrary, he writes affectionately about them both, and the only mild criticism he allows himself is a remark that “they were intensely sensitive to the suffering of their patients, more so, I sometimes thought, than to those of their children.”

To make Oliver more sociable and teach him practical skills, they enrolled him in the Cub Scouts, but it was a failure. The fires he laid never started to burn and the tents he pitched invariably collapsed. One day the scoutmaster told the boys to bake disks of unleavened bread, and bring them to the next outing. When he found the flour tin empty, Oliver, ever resourceful, discovered some cement outside, made it into a paste, flavored it with garlic, shaped it into an oval disk, and baked it in the oven. When he tempted the unsuspecting scoutmaster with that delicacy he cracked a tooth, and Oliver was expelled.

He turned to chemistry instead, and Uncle Tungsten became his teacher. He showed Oliver how to make tungsten metal by smelting tungsten ore with charcoal. The ore was named scheelite after its eighteenth-century Swedish discoverer, Karl Wilhelm Scheele. His uncle told Oliver that Scheele had been an apothecary who worked all on his own, cared nothing for money, and just explored chemistry for its own sake. This made Oliver want to become a chemist and to discover a new mineral that would be named Sacksite.

His uncle told Oliver that the tungsten filaments made in his factory had been invented after many years of experiment that began with the observation that lime shone brightly in a gas flame. Lime was soon used to light theater stages, hence the figurative term “limelight” that has survived after the real lime lights have long been forgotten. The Austrian inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach (not a German, as Sacks writes) replaced them with fabrics impregnated with a mixture of cerium and thorium oxides. They produced a brilliant glow and were soon used for domestic and street lighting. Oliver used to watch the lamplighters go round the streets with their long poles lighting one gas light after another, as my own children did.

Oliver’s first London school concentrated on Greek and Latin. He writes that

this did not matter, for it was my own reading in the library that provided my real education, and I divided my spare time, when I was not with Uncle Dave, between the library and the wonders of the South Kensington museums, which were crucial for me throughout my boyhood and adolescence.

The museums, especially, allowed me to wander in my own way, at leisure, going from one cabinet to another, one exhibit to another, without being forced to follow any curriculum, to attend to lessons, to take exams or compete. There was something passive, and forced upon one, about sitting in school, whereas in museums one could be active, explore, as in the world. The museums—and the zoo, and the botanical garden at Kew—made me want to go out into the world and explore for myself, be a rock hound, a plant collector, a zoologist or paleontologist….

One gained entrance to the Geological Museum, as to a temple, through a great arch of marble flanked by enormous vases of Derbyshire blue-john, a form of fluorspar. The ground floor was devoted to densely filled cabinets and cases of minerals and gems. There were dioramas of volcanoes, bubbling mudholes, lava cooling, minerals crystallizing, the slow processes of oxidation and reduction, rising and sinking, mixing, metamorphosis; so one could get not only a sense of the products of the earth’s activities—its rocks, its minerals—but of the processes, physical and chemical, that continually produced them.

Oliver liked the minerals’ personal names like wollastonite, montmorillonite. Entrance to all the museums was free, and in the 1940s it was still safe for a young boy to travel across London by underground on his own.

At home Oliver repeated the experiments that led the French eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier to disprove phlogiston, the substance that was supposed to be given off by inflammable substances on burning, and to discover that it is the combination with the oxygen in the air that makes them burn. One of Oliver’s favorite books was Mary Elvira Weeks’s Discovery of the Elements,3 which ranged from the prehistoric discoveries of copper and iron to Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner’s discovery of nuclear fission in 1939. It gave details of the methods used for each element and short biographies of their discoverers. Oliver read how on October 6, 1807, the twenty-eight-year-old English chemist Humphry Davy had the idea of using a battery to pass an electric current through crystals of potash and saw for the first time tiny lumps of metallic potassium forming at one of the battery’s terminals. A few days later, passage of a current through crystals of soda led Davy also to the discovery of metallic sodium. Oliver could repeat these experiments. At the Science Museum his mother showed him the miner’s lamp named after Davy, designed to prevent the flame from igniting explosive mixtures of gases in underground mines, and she also showed him the improved version of the lamp named after her father, Marcus Landau. Sacks writes:

It was Davy’s personality that appealed to me—not modest, like Scheele, not systematic, like Lavoisier, but filled with the exuberance and enthusiasm of a boy, with a wonderful adventurousness and sometimes dangerous impulsiveness—he was always at the point of going too far—and it was this which captured my imagination above all.

Another of Oliver’s favorites was a short volume that looked like a prayer book: Chemical Recreations by John Griffin, published in Glasgow in 1825. Its introduction is even more uplifting than Mendeleev’s:

If we consider Chemistry purely as a science, we shall find no study better calculated to encourage that generous love of truth which confers dignity and superiority on those who successfully pursue it. No science holds out more interesting subjects of research, and none affords more striking proofs of the wisdom and beneficence of the Creator of the universe. Chemistry is a science that is founded entirely upon experiment; and no person can understand it unless he performs such experiments as verify its fundamental truths. The hearing of lectures, and the reading of books, will never benefit him who attends to nothing else; for Chemistry can only be studied to advantage practically; chemical operations are in general, the most interesting that could possibly be devised. Reader! What more is requisite to induce you to MAKE EXPERIMENTS?

The book taught Oliver how to make a battery by putting down alternate plates of zinc and copper interleaved with moist paper, and how to make a balloon out of a turkey’s stomach filled with hydrogen gas, as well as a chemical chameleon from salts of manganese. He learned several ways of preparing invisible ink and found the chapter on combustion and detonation especially appealing.

Oliver succeeded in making his own photographic emulsions by suspending silver chloride in gelatin and spreading it on a glass plate, and his own batteries by sticking rods of copper and zinc into raw potatoes. After reading a chapter on “The Smells We Dislike,” Oliver prepared hydrogen sulfide and selenide, two evil-smelling and toxic gases that made his parents’ house barely habitable, but instead of forbidding further experiments, they equipped his room with a glass-fronted, ventilated cupboard that extracted the smells into the open air. He also loved setting off explosions in the garden, and showing the wonders of chemistry to others helped him to overcome his shyness.

Uncle Dave had specimens of many of the rare heavy metals and the ores from which they are mined: platinum, palladium, osmium, tantalum, “given its name because its oxide was unable to drink water, i.e., to dissolve in acid,” after Tantalus, who suffered agonies of thirst in hell because water retreated from him whenever he tried to drink it. Uncle Dave also told him that some of these heavy metals acted as catalysts of chemical reactions, meaning that they accelerate them many thousandfold without undergoing any perceptible change themselves. For instance, a platinum wire instantly ignited an otherwise stable mixture of oxygen and hydrogen and made it explode.

Uncle Tungsten apparently failed to tell him that catalysis is the chemical secret of life. Nearly all chemical reactions in living cells need catalysts to make them work, and nearly all catalysts are proteins, complex molecules made of thousands of atoms. Each of the thousands of reactions is catalyzed by a protein that exists specifically for that single purpose. Coding for these proteins is the main function of genes. That much was known when Oliver became an amateur chemist; but proteins were black boxes, and their amazing catalytic powers were a mystery. Solving that mystery was the challenge that inspired my own research.

Uncle Dave had a cathode ray tube in his attic. When he pumped the air out of it, wired its two metal plates to an induction coil, and put them under electric tension, a miniature aurora borealis lit up between them. He told Oliver about Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen, the German physicist who one day covered such a cathode ray tube with black cardboard and saw crystals nearby lighting up brightly in the darkened room. This was his first glimpse of the X-rays whose discovery made him famous. Sacks writes that Röntgen told only his wife about his observation, but I could find no evidence for this. According to her he would arrive late and ill-tempered for meals, speak not a word, and hurry back to his lab immediately afterward. He told no one, because he realized that any one of the many physicists who experimented with cathode rays at the time could have repeated his observation in an afternoon if his secret had leaked out before publication established his priority. Röntgen was the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics just one hundred years ago.

Sometime after Oliver had studied Mendeleev’s Principles, he asked his uncle for the reason underlying the strange periodic arrangement of Mendeleev’s table. Uncle Dave told him about Niels Bohr, the Danish genius who brought together the periodic table, Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum, Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus, and the already well-known characteristic spectral lines of hydrogen, and from them was able to form a satisfying, unified theory of the atom. Bohr proposed that the rows of the table represented successive shells of negatively charged electrons spinning around the positively charged atomic nucleus like planets round the sun. These shells become filled with electrons one by one as the nuclear charge rises: up to two electrons in the first shell, then up to eight in each of the next two shells, and up to eighteen in the remaining ones, matching the two atoms in the first period, eight in each of the next two periods, and eighteen atoms in the remaining ones in Mendeleev’s table. That revelation sent Oliver back to the Science Museum once more, thrilled that the table now made physical as well as chemical sense, but it also made Oliver wonder what need there was for experiments now that theory had become so powerful. He writes:

I had dreamed of becoming a chemist, but the chemistry that really stirred me was the lovingly detailed, naturalistic, descriptive chemistry of the nineteenth century, not the new chemistry of the quantum age, which, so far as I understood it, was highly abstract and, in a sense, closer to physics than to chemistry. Chemistry, as I knew it, the chemistry I loved, was either finished or changing its character, advancing beyond me.

From this point, chemistry seemed to recede from my mind—my love affair, my passion for it, came to an end.

Parental expectations made him turn to medicine and he became a successful neurologist, but he must now feel that his world has turned full circle, since mental illnesses are increasingly recognized as chemical disorders of the brain and modern diagnostic tools rest on quantum physics.

According to Edmond de Goncourt, originality in literature consists in making something extraordinary out of something ordinary. What could have been more ordinary than the Sacks’s huge, rambling, Edwardian house, the sitting room with its dilapidated, comfy chairs for general use (dilapidated not because his parents were poor, but because they were too busy to notice or didn’t care); the drawing room with its elegant uncomfortable Chinese chairs for sabbath gatherings of uncles, aunts, and cousins; the library, sacred to the children for their father’s Hebrew texts; and the surgery which they were forbidden to enter, with its shelves of medicines? Yet Sacks’s vivid description delights the imagination like a lovingly painted Dutch interior, and it sets the stage for his actors: Father and Mother; the affectionate and a little limited Auntie Birdie, who lived with them; Aunt Lina, who blows her nose in the tablecloth at meals and whose sharp-eyed judgment of people he likens to Keynes’s description of Lloyd George; the formidable Aunt Anna, more English than the English and more Jewish than the Zionists, whose orthodoxy is offended by little Oliver riding his bicycle on a sabbath; Uncle Dave, whose hands are stained black with tungsten; and the whole family whose tongues are black from munching charcoal biscuits against wind. I know them all now and feel as though I had lived in their house.

Sacks transforms himself into the wide-eyed, playful, eager, mischievous, and indefatigably questioning boy to whom chemistry has become at once a toy and a window to the miracles of the natural world. Such is his precocity, performing sophisticated experiments and developing an understanding far beyond his age, and so numerous and minute are the details of Sacks’s reconstruction that I wondered if this impressionable boy, shaped by his uncles and aunts, might not also have been reshaped somewhat by Uncle Oliver, his present self. Does Sacks really recognize himself in him or would he be, as François Jacob writes of himself as a schoolboy, almost “a stranger,” hard to recognize if he met him in the street? “Like a bird contemplating the shell he has just broken out of, saying, ‘Me? In there? Never!’”4 To the reader the answer does not really matter, because Sacks has treated us to an enjoyable and very human story and to a pain-less and readable introduction to the elements of chemistry and atomic physics, enhanced by his long, erudite footnotes.

  1. 1

    Dmitry Mendeleev, Principles of Chemistry, translated by George Kamensky and Thomas H. Pope (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1905).

  2. 2

    The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  3. 3

    Easton, Pa.: Journal of Chemical Education, 1945.

  4. 4

    François Jacob, The Statue Within (Basic Books, 1988), p. 15.