Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Interests in Context

As a boy, Oliver Sacks loved chemistry. Though later known as a neurologist, Dr. Sacks was captivated by a different science as a child. In his book Uncle Tungsten, he reflects on his “chemical boyhood”: his early passion for understanding the world and its history in chemical terms.

Dr. Sacks, born in London in 1933, describes his enchantment in learning not only contemporary chemistry, but also its history. By the time he was delving into chemical handbooks, just after the second World War, much of the information in his shabby, older volumes, and many of the beliefs of the chemists he admired, were wrong.

The ancients’ concept of four all-encompassing “elements”—fire, water, earth, and air—had long since been left behind. Likewise, the three elements of the alchemists—sulfur, mercury, and salt—had come and gone. Robert Boyle had bravely put forth his radical, rational definition of an element—indivisible and pure—and Antoine Lavoisier had combatted the lingering alchemical notion of phlogiston, the “principle of fire,” with his experiments in oxidation. So why were these disproven theories and scientific blunders of such interest to the young Oliver Sacks?

Sacks points out that the “path to his [Lavoisier’s] revolution was not easy or direct…it required fifteen years of genius time, fighting his way through labyrinths of presupposition, fighting his own blindness as he fought everyone else’s.” This description of that journey, I believe, highlights an important underlying reason for Sacks’ interest in chemistry, and provides insight into why we are so fascinated by our own particular interests as well.

Sacks enjoyed chemistry because for him, the science was alive. He could trace its convoluted path from its distant, misguided beginnings. He could follow the mistakes, wonder, and bewilderment woven into that long and far from linear history.

Our interests are often shaped by stories. What we appreciate is linked to our exploration of its roots and origins. One NPR podcast episode, titled Why Do We Like What We Like? addresses this phenomenon.

Dr. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University interviewed for the episode, notes that “…you can enhance your pleasure simply by learning more about something…where it comes from, how it works. Music will sound different the more you understand the music…”

Dr. Bloom further points out that there are neural systems related to attachment. Someone’s brain may be activated very differently by two seemingly identical pairs of baby shoes if one pair is known to have belonged to that person’s child.

Likewise, I believe, as Dr. Sacks did, that chemistry is experienced differently when the stories are introduced. The Periodic Table gains dimension when the struggles of Dmitri Mendeleev are uncovered. The discovery that hydrogen and oxygen, when exploded together, create water, is made all the more intriguing in the characterization of its discoverer, Henry Cavendish, who, it has been suggested, may have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder were he alive today.

Dr. Bloom concludes that the opportunity to learn the stories behind our world “opens us up to get far more pleasure out of life than we could have possibly had otherwise.” From music to science to one another, context, development, and history are worth exploring.

—Kate Oksas


Sacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.

NPR Science Friday podcast, July 23, 2010.