Jane Glover Barrister – Mediator – Adjudicator

books for ip geeks: uncle tungsten


The other day one of our kids asked, “Mum, if you love Oliver Sacks so much, why don’t you marry him?”

Well, quite a number of reasons really.  Sadly, he’s now dead.  And he was gay.  And too old for me.  Plus, unilateral adulation isn’t the healthiest basis for a relationship.  And he did have his demons – he was a complicated person.  Also, I already have a perfectly lovely husband.  (Listed in no particular order, of course…)

But I still manage to manoeuvre Oliver Sacks into pretty much any conversation, no matter what the topic.  It was only a matter of time before he popped up on this blog.  And what better way to start than by talking about my favourite Oliver Sacks book – Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Now I know this isn’t one of his more famous books, not like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for example, but I think it is much more engaging.  It has so much heart, and oh, getting to know Oliver (I think I can call him that now!) as a young man – well, I think you will fall in love with him too.

More than that, it is a quintessential IP geek book.  It embodies humanity’s driving curiosity, inventiveness and creativity.  Oliver Sacks’ approach to learning about everything – chemistry, photography, minerals, cephalopods, plants, books – is exuberant and contagious and gleeful.  The Guardian says that Uncle Tungsten is really about the raw joy of scientific understanding; what it is like to be a precocious child discovering the alchemical secrets of reality for the first time; and the sheer thrill of finding intelligible patterns in nature.

And it is all of that. But the book is heartbreaking, too.  This is a time when a lot of the demons enter young Oliver’s psyche, courtesy of boarding school sadism and exile from his (also brilliant) family during the war. Even without those cruel external factors, I wonder how easy it would be to be as clever and as sensitive as Oliver Sacks. Recently, I listened to a lecture on the ethics of genome editing in which the lecturer discussed the desirability of altering a human genome to enhance the trait of intelligence (not something that is currently possible). He mentioned as an ethical hurdle the fact that the relationship between intelligence and happiness is not straightforward. Instantly, Oliver Sacks sprang to mind.

Oliver Sacks never had children of his own, but he was such a prolific and gifted writer that his influence will live on for generations to come.  If you have young people in your lives who have curiosity to burn, give them a copy of this book.  They might find a friend, or even a life partner of sorts, within.

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Jane Glover

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By Jane Glover
Jane Glover Barrister – Mediator – Adjudicator

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