Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

In Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood, Oliver Sacks recounted memories of his younger years being fascinated and consumed by chemistry. Under the familial apprenticeships of his chemist uncles, he enjoyed the exploration of a scientific field with all the joy and wonder a boy could experience in his favorite playthings. Except that for Sacks, his toys were chemicals, including metals and radioactive materials that were much more accessible to the general population in the 1940s.

 

As a chemistry fan myself, I was actually jealous of the hands-on experiments he could do for fun, at home. Not very many college educated chemists would have half of what he got to do as a child. He got to know each element of the periodic table simply out of curiosity and joy.

 

At the end of the book, however, Sacks asked these profound questions on what happened as he entered adolescence. Somehow, his fascination with chemistry faded. I think we can probably resonate on the experience of growing up, and letting go of a childhood fascination.

 

But now all this had changed: other interests were crowding in, exciting me, seducing me, pulling me in different ways. Life had become broader, richer, in a way, but it was also shallower, too. That calm deep center, my former passion, was no longer there. Adolescence had rushed upon me, like a typhoon, buffeting me with insatiable longings. At school I had left the undemanding classics “side,” and moved to the pressured science side instead. I had been spoiled, in a sense, by my two uncles, and the freedom and spontaneity of my apprenticeship. Now, at school, I was forced to sit in classes, to take notes and exams, to use textbooks that were flat, impersonal, deadly. What had been fun, delight, when I did it in my own way became an aversion, an ordeal, when I had to do it to order. What had been a holy subject for me, full of poetry, was being rendered prosaic, profane.

 

Was it, then, the end of chemistry? My own intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School? Was it the inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that it burns hotly, brightly, like a star, for a while, and then, exhausting itself, gutters out, is gone? Was it that I had found, at least in the physical world and in physical science, the sense of stability and order I so desperately needed, so that I could now relax, feel less obsessed, move on? Or was it, perhaps, more simply, that I was growing up, and that “growing up” makes one forget the lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood, the glory and the freshness of which Wordsworth wrote, so that they fade into the light of common day?

 

This change, Sacks felt, happened when he was fourteen years old. Between then and the writing of Uncle Tungsten, many decades passed, and of course, Sacks became a neurologist, author, polymath. While he ended the last essay with these sobering questions, he gave a hopeful afterword. Many decades after his passion for chemistry faded, he found it again, triggered by a friend who sent him a poster of the periodic table with a picture of each element and a little bar of tungsten, his childhood favorite element. With that, a flood of memories overcame him and his old love for chemistry was unearthed. One of the last essays Sacks wrote before he died was about his love for the elements of the periodic table. You can find this essay in Gratitude.

 

I love the contrast Sacks made between learning out of joy vs. necessity, and how one is more poetic, lyrical, the other prosaic and dull. Do you have a childhood fascination that faded away too?

 

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Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: The Revolution is the third post in a series on Individuality. Read the first and second.

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. If you hear someone saying these famed words with a beat, then you’ve come across someone who has been bitten by the Hamilton bug. I’m talking about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that is making waves in the theatre world with ripples in contemporary American culture.

 

As someone whose day job is as far away as it can be from the Arts, I am immensely fascinated by the artist’s mind. How do artists create? How do they think? What thought process occurs when they work? What is it like to operate with the right brain in dominance?

 

These questions, of course, are decidedly left-brained, which, I suspect, miss the whole essence of artistic endeavors. It seems to me that the Arts involve more nonlinear processes, merging divergent thoughts and feelings that may at some point converge into a masterpiece. The actual work from the blank canvas to a painting may take a short time, but the process of creation has likely started long before that moment of inspiration.

 

Which is why I’m crazy about one of my latest reads, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, that unveils a little of the creative process, the story of how this revolutionary Broadway musical came about. There’s a marvelous story of individuality here.

 

Individuality: An Asset in Creative Endeavors

 

Hamilton is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill (of which I was completely ignorant before this musical), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. It traces his life during the American Revolution and the early years of the nation, to his death.

 

Sounds like a bland historical statement? Yes. But, Hamilton is anything but boring.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and creator of the musical, said in an interview, “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution.” That’s right. This is a hip-hop musical, a sound that is not typical Broadway. It’s fast-paced, energetic, delivering high words-per-minute density that covers vast amount of information in mere minutes. Cabinet debates are performed as rap battles, with contemporary language that makes these idealized Founding Fathers accessible to the 21st century audience.

 

“This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

Lin-Manuel is a master wordsmith. There are 4 dozens of songs in this musical, much more than typical Broadway shows, and he wrote them all. I love the story of how it began, how he connected Founding Father to hip-hop.

 

About to go on vacation in 2008 from his first musical, In the Heights, he picked up Ron Chernow’s doorstopper book, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. (What kind of person does that? A nerd. Read about Lin’s relationship with books here.) Within a few chapters, something clicked in his mind: this was a hip-hop story. Needless to say, not very many could make this kind of connection! Hamilton, an outsider, an immigrant, wrote his way out of his doomed life in the Caribbean, rose with ambition through his skills with words, and helped build the country. This connection was so obvious to him that he Googled whether anyone had done a musical on Hamilton. (That would be a no.)

 

As I went through the creation story in the book, it became abundantly clear that Lin was probably the only person on the planet whose brain could birth this breakthrough musical. The marriage of an avid reader, history learner, writer, hip-hop connoisseur, rapper, freestyler, and musical buff in his personhood, plus the friends who collaborated with him, are what made this possible. If that’s not a story of individuality, I don’t know what is.

 

Lin said something profound about individuality in the last 1 minute of this interview.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution traverses the 7 years between Lin’s first moments of inspiration in 2008 to the show opening on Broadway in August 2015. It tells the stories of how the songs came about and what inspired them. The complete libretto is reproduced here (on gorgeous papers) with Lin’s annotations, plus snapshots of his notebook pages when he first wrote the lyrics. In other words, it’s a little peek into his brilliant mind. It also tells the stories of the many collaborators that built the masterpiece, that even though Lin’s name has the strongest association with the musical, the revolution did not happen just because of one person.

 

Need more reasons to read Hamilton: The Revolution? Keep reading.

 

Lessons on History

 

The biggest reason why I love this book is because of its profound insights on history. It does not treat history as a list of facts, but as stories. Stories of people, real people with real ambitions, emotions, and flaws. The Revolution here is meant to refer both to the American Revolution of the 18th century and the show itself, “a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding.”

 

The book touches upon the fallacies through which we see history, how in hindsight revolutions may look obvious and inevitable, but in fact at the moment, they were “unprecedented and all but impossible to imagine ahead of time.” It’s hindsight bias. There’s also our faulty memory and how unreliable it is in reproducing sequence of events, something they experienced in putting this book together. If we couldn’t keep our recent facts right, how are we expecting something from 240 years ago to be entirely solid.

 

The book is a precious record of the experiences of the artists today as they are living through them. It is contemporary, and thus can capture thoughts and feelings more accurately. We know how hard it is to piece together something from the past, to capture the atmosphere and essence of the events, even in the presence of evidence. In a way, this book too is a piece of history.

 

Lessons on Collaborations

 

Even though Lin wrote the musical, the creation of Hamilton involved many bright minds. Genius work is often a collaborative effort. My favorite story is of Alex Lacamoire who was in charge of orchestrating the music, tweaking each part of the 10-person band to get the music exactly right and tell the story as best as they can. I’ve been listening to the cast album for a few days now, and I am simply blown away by the incredibly layered composition of the music.

 

There was also the stage director, stressing over little details to reproduce 18th century New York. These are things that the audience may never notice, but contribute to the feel and atmosphere of the stage, which help the actors get into their stories more.

 

With each piece, the revolution becomes less of a mythical story into a story of community, of hard work, and of ingenuity. There are iterations, false starts, and revelatory moments. But most of all, it’s a composite of individuals, with distinct individuality and gifts, pushing for something that has never been done before.

 

Quoting Lin in the video above:

“I think that’s what we do as artists. What’s the thing that only I can contribute? It’s not about the confidence to like, “Hello, world, here is this idea that never existed.” It’s… This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin Manuel Miranda

 

Previous posts in this series on Individuality:

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

See also this NYT article: Why ‘Hamilton’ Has Heat