Ed Wiebe

at the UVic Climate Lab

Posted 13 Feb 2012 on Google+.

[30 August, 2015 Oliver Sacks has died.]

I've been reading Uncle Tungsten Memories of a Chemical Childhood by Oliver Sacks. I've always enjoyed Sacks' books and his writing style in particular. He doesn't hold back with rich language (ie. big words) but you never feel he's snob or showing off. He's a remarkable fellow and wonderful communicator of science. From the descriptions he gives in the book it seems that he had a remarkable childhood with a collection of near and dear relatives who were themselves interesting, interested people. It makes me a bit envious to read about the opportunities for exploration that he got simply by living among these people. It doesn't really come across in the book but I wonder if Sacks realized at the time, or now, how privileged his upbringing was. It's true things weren't all wonderful. He does discuss, though not in great detail, his terrible experiences at a boarding school where he was sent during the early years of the second world war. It sounds like a nightmare that he had to live through while he was very young. But it also seems to me that young Oliver must not have fit in at all with his peers. He had an intense curiosity about the world that I'm sure would have alienated other children his age who were probably much more interested in mundane things like movie stars, sports and comic books. I wonder if everyone around him, I refer to his family, realized how special and different they all must have been from most people.

There's always been at least one instant when I read a book by Sacks where I have a sort of a moment of amazement. Usually there are several. The thing that I found particularly interesting in Uncle Tungsten has nothing really to do with Sacks in particular but it came as a sort of revelation to me. Sacks writes about his discovery of spectroscopy and how much he enjoyed going around with a pocket spectroscope (!). The stories of his childhood experiences with science, with chemistry in particular, are interwoven with the history of particular scientific achievements and discoveries. In the case of spectroscopy he writes about Bunsen and Kirchhoff working out the basics of spectral absorption and emission lines. Kirchhoff, in 1859, performed an experiment that was able to show that the bright and dark lines that appeared when sodium was heated, in the former case, and when sodium lay between the source of light and the spectroscope, in the latter case, were emission and absorption spectra corresponding specifically to that element. That part is quite straightforward and though what followed makes sense, and somehow I knew it had happened, I didn't quite connect it all together in my mind. What Kirchhoff did next was show that the same absorption spectra were present in the light coming from the sun and he concluded that there must be sodium in the solar photosphere. I have a feeling that this must have been one the truly "eureka" moments in the history of science and I wonder what it must have been like to be there with him has he realized what he was seeing and what he could now demonstrate. It is really a remarkable achievement for science to be able to look at the light coming from the distant sun and know what that object must be composed of. What an incredible moment and powerful demonstration.

This wasn't really intended to be a book review but here's a little summary and final commentary. Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten is a wonderful book but won't suit everyone's taste. There is a lot of chemistry in it, basic stuff perhaps, but fundamental. As Sacks makes discoveries for himself in his childhood lab (he was a remarkably precocious child) the reader is brought along as well. I think anyone interested in Sacks or interested in the history of chemistry (or both, there must be a few such folks) will find something of interest in this book though the former may feel a bit overwhelmed at times by some sections that go into a bit more detail than they might be interested in and perhaps the latter won't think much of Sacks! The book is very enjoyable and very interesting and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Oliver Sacks is truly a remarkable fellow; I'm glad he's taken the time to write the books he has. His work has gone a fair way to improving the lot of humanity in general and that's certainly more than many of us achieve.

[Edit: 2015-04-24 I was reading a very interesting article about the manufacturing processes likely involved in Apple's new watches. I spotted a reference to Tungsten.

A glimpse at how the apple watch is made.

Our case now finished, our video takes a dark turn to quickly show the black variants and mention the "brilliant, diamond like carbon layer." Running with the knowledge that Apple tends to be very precise with their language, the implication is that the process they are using is a Tungsten DLC coating produced in a vapor deposition process. This is a very tough, very thin layer of tungsten that is bonded to the surface of the part in a vacuum chamber, and is the standard blackening process for the vast majority of high-end watches, knives and some mill cutting tools. TDLC has a reputation for being extraordinarily durable, though it has been somewhat surpassed by other, more involved, treatments at this stage.]

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