“This work of non-fiction, by the well known neurologist/author of Awakenings is an account of his boyhood adventures in chemistry. Oliver Sacks comes from a large family, most of whom were either doctors, chemists, geologists, or involved in science in some way. His family encouraged his experimentation in chemistry, suggesting experiments to perform to satisfy his curiosity, and sometimes providing raw materials and apparatus. In this way he was very lucky to receive such tutelage, as it formed a very solid basis for his future medical training.
Dr. Sacks' boyhood laboratory is a reflection of a world gone by, as what he did in those days could probably not be duplicated today in a home lab. He tells of being able to obtain dangerous chemicals from a supplier in his neighborhood, whereas today one may often need a license to get such items. I really enjoyed his descriptions of the reactions he observed, especially those of the colors that certain metals would emit when set aflame.
I often did not agree with some of the suggestions of his scientific relatives, as when his mother arranged for him to study anatomy via dissection of human cadavers at the age of fourteen. The professor chosen to guide him on this anatomical journey decided it was a great idea for him to dissect a girl's body of his own age, fourteen. I found that a bit creepy.
The book is also not strictly an account of his boyhood exploits. There is quite a bit of scientific history as well. There are chapters on the discoveries of the elements, the construction of the periodic chart, the architecture of the atom, among other topics. I found particularly fascinating the story of Marie Curie and her meticulous isolation of the element radium. I found other parts of the history sections of the book to be quite dry and a bit boring. However, this is the type of book that you could read the sections you enjoy, skipping others, and not lose the drift of the narrative. I do believe that this book is really for those with an interest or background in science. It may be too technical and dry in parts for the general reading public.
Oliver Sacks is an interesting storyteller and a formidable intellect. I'll probably read more of his work, and he has sparked an interest in me for Marie Curie's story.”