Dr. Sacks was growing up in London during World War II and had a very traumatic experience when he was sent away from his home for protection from the bombing. He and his brother were sent to a boarding school, where they were beaten and underfed. Sack's home had been filled with a wonderful extended family of physicists, mathematicians, teachers, and chemists, in addition to his parents who were both practicing physicians. Being unusually bright and talented, Sacks responded to a wide variety of stimuli when he returned to this environment.

He became fascinated with the chemistry of metals and with the periodic table of elements. An uncle, for whom the book is named, was a manufacturer of light bulbs with tungsten filaments and encouraged him in setting up his own chemistry laboratory in the family laundry room, to do experiments. The family allowed him a great deal of freedom, which encouraged his creativity.

In writing about these experiences Sacks includes the history of the development of chemistry concepts that fascinated him. It was only much later that his interests moved on to the natural sciences and medicine. He says that his parents had been tolerant and even pleased with his early interests in chemistry but by the time he was fourteen they felt that the time for play was over. He kept a journal from the age of fourteen and took advantage of every opportunity to read broadly and experience nature, music and art.

In retrospect, however, Sacks felt that life was shallower after he left behind his passion for chemistry. He says that he dreams of chemistry at night. This description of such intense interest in the world around him and the people he read about or knew explains a great deal about his great success as a neurologist and as a remarkable story teller.


This book is not easy reading for someone without at least a general knowledge of chemistry, but the scientific information is so interwoven with stories of scientists, discoveries and excitement about them that it is easy to continue reading. The autobiographical descriptions of Sacks's childhood in his incredible extended family provides a broad background for such a story.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count