Curiosity and Uncle Tungsten

Oliver Sacks’ autobiography ‘Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood’ describes his fascination with chemistry as a young boy and his childhood memories about his mother and father, his brothers and his favourite uncles. Perhaps most importantly, the book is an anatomy of an obsession, that has no particular goal except enjoyment for its own sake. The story of a curious child is perhaps the best of all stories. There is the innocence in discovering new ideas and a euphoria at encountering something new and exciting. Sacks sets up his own little lab in his house and performs all kinds of experiments, sometimes to the annoyance of his parents. The book ends with the confession that he somehow lost that obsession with chemistry as he grew up (later he became a neuroscientist). Other things began to occupy his fifteen year old mind: exams, expectations perhaps and a sense of having to make his way through the world.

This book made me wonder why adult experiences of working with ideas are so different. Where does the curiosity and the excitement of these early discoveries go, when the same person grows up and must work with these ideas for a living?  Is some of it retained, or is it hopelessly lost? A lot of these early experiences for Sacks were mentored by his two uncles, who must’ve played an important part in sustaining his curiosity and nudging his interests in the right direction. In real life though, there isn’t much of an emphasis on emotions like curiosity, excitement or even euphoria in the ‘business of science’. You’re supposed to do the job and fulfill some expectations with respect to being a successful professional. It’s also easy to lose track of the fact that everyone grows, at their own pace and can make contributions, provided that a number of different factors come together.

Rather than this idea of nurturing one’s growth, and paying attention to the motivation and emotions that propel one into working on challenges, one must put up this appearance of machine-like rationality and productivity. It seems to be a particularly damaging way of thinking about how human beings really behave. As children, there are fewer worries, and emotions like curiosity and excitement are allowed free rein. It’s just sad to imagine that we have beaten those out of our psyche to adhere to an idea about maturity or adult behaviour. Surely there is a way to channel those emotions to motivate us in our working life ?

Curiosity about certain things can only come from a place that’s wholly original–no one is curious about the same kinds of things. But it’s more common to treat these emotions as trivial and fleeting, and not as important as fulfilling certain other kinds of criteria that are completely extrinsic to us as human beings. It would be kinder on us to simply recognize that inspiration is important– and not something you only experience in childhood. Indeed, it can be the fuel that can propel us even though the rest of the world may have written us off.






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