Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Uncle Tungsten

Tim and N. have finished their epic journey through all five omnibus collections of James Herriot stories and although N. really wanted to begin them all over again (that honor is apparently reserved for me!), Tim has been reading N. Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks's memoir of his boyhood.  The book serves as history, science, biography, as well as a model of unschooling in our curriculum as Sacks describes being sent from London at age 6 to a country boarding school during the Blitz and his subsequent passion for chemistry, developed upon his return home.

Sacks' time at school during the war was absolutely horrifying (the boys were cruelly beaten by a sadistic headmaster) but in the remaining narrative we see Oliver given free rein at home as he performs dangerous chemistry experiments in his makeshift home lab.  N. is learning a ton about the chemistry from this book; he made a chart of some elements and their atomic numbers after one day's reading, for example.  He's also seeing Sacks as a model of interest-led learning; Sacks drew on the knowledge and resources of his intellectually distinguished family just as today's homeschoolers make use of (and often outstrip!) friends' and family members' expertise.  N. is learning about the history of science from this book as Sacks details his childhood interest in the lives and work of Mendeleev and Humphry Davy.

This kind of well-written, intellectually rich memoir seems like an ideal way to learn a range of interconnected subjects.  I hope we can find others like this.  Any suggestions?

New York Times Review here.


Alice@Supratentorial said...

I adored this book. I thought at the time that it would be a great book to hand an older child and let them recreate Sacks' experiments as he recreates those of earlier chemists.

I have to admit I never have thought of reading it to my 7 yr old, but now that I see this I'm intrigued. He would probably really like it.

Fanny Harville said...

Hi Alice,
As you know since you read it, the book has some emotionally difficult material, so some disturbing things to talk about in addition to all the great science stuff. But N is really enjoying it nonetheless. Thanks for commenting!