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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)

by Oliver Sacks

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1,855446,422 (4)56
Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals-also by chemical reactions (the louder and smellier the better), photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In this endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, the author chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded. In Uncle Tungsten we meet Sacks' extraordinary family, from his surgeon mother, who introduces the fourteen-year-old Oliver to the art of human dissection, and his father, a family doctor who imbues in his son an early enthusiasm for housecalls, to his "Uncle Tungsten," whose factory produces tungsten-filament light bulbs. We follow the young Oliver as he is exiled at the age of six to a grim, sadistic boarding school to escape the London Blitz, and later watch as he sets about passionately reliving the exploits of his chemical heroes, in his own home laboratory. Uncle Tungsten is a crystalline view of a brilliant young mind springing to life, a story of growing up which is by turns elegiac, comic, and wistful, full of the electrifying joy of discovery.… (more)
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English (40)  German (2)  Catalan (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (44)
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
I enjoyed listening to Sacks's story throughout the memoir including his reminiscing of bits of chemical/physics history. His last chapter discussing his transition away from Chemistry into Medicine was the most striking. I found it disconcerting that formal study of a subject would make someone with such a love for a discipline to lose interest. Although, I took heart in knowing that more than that went into the equation. In particular, his parent's desire for him to study medicine and the quantum chemistry portion of chemistry being so troubling for him. ( )
  aevaughn | Aug 12, 2020 |
The piano teacher "instilled in us an intense feeling for Bach especially, and all the hidden structure of a fugue. When I was five, I am told, and asked what my favorite things in the world were, I answered, 'smoked salmon and Bach.' (Now sixty years later, my answer would be the same.)" (Page 182) Likewise, at the end of the book I learned that his love of chemistry, though dormant for 50 years, was still there, and flared up again in his later life.

This book said nicely something that I had been feeling - children no longer get to experiment and play with chemicals. Now they are considered toxic or dangerous, and are not as available as they used to be. Although my experimentation was not as extensive as his, I used to go to the drug store and buy whatever chemicals I wanted. "Linus Pauling [said] Just think of the differences today. A young person gets interested in chemistry and is given a chemical set. But id doesn't contain potassium cyanide. It doesn't even contain copper sulfate or anything else interesting because all the interesting chemicals are considered dangerous substances. Therefore these budding young chemists don't have a chance to do anything engrossing with their chemistry sets." (Page 86 footnote)

The ending of the book contains what I had come to suspect - the book only covers up to age 15. And it felt like half the book teaches us about chemistry. It is so nicely interwoven with his life that I didn't mind the long digressions into the history of chemical discovery. In fact, I found the history of Madam Curie to be especially interesting.
( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
A typically slow paced, simply written but involving book from Mr Sachs. About his fascination with chemistry as a child. Inspired by his uncles and his parents he had a privileged childhood but one not without its traumas with evacuation from London during the war. We learn about his childhood but it's also a lesson in chemistry and its history. If you never understood the periodic table this book will explain it for you. ( )
  Steve38 | Jun 11, 2019 |
Oliver Sacks' first autobiography is a frustrating read. He uses every trick in the book to hide from the limelight and instead of a memoir delivers a very comprehensive History of Chemistry with a few personal anecdotes interjected far and between.
Sacks was a remarkable chronicler of the mind and lived a very eventful childhood in a bygone era. In LP Hartley's apt turn of phrase, 'the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'. We want to find out more about that country, but Sacks leaves us high and dry. What was it like to live in England through the war, with food rationed, and national mobilization underway? He mentions people and events in a detached way, almost as a historian, certainly not as a highly gifted child who was actually there growing up in those cataclysmic times.
Lastly, Sacks literary style is severely lacking in the flow department. He frequently interrupts the narrative to walk us with excruciating detail through technical explanations of the chemical properties of an element or an experiment he conducted in his basement. Feels like his editor gave him a free pass to ramble at ease.
The bottom line is, this concave book has a more limited appeal than expected, given what we know of the author. Instead of reflections on his childhood, we are treated to a master lecture on chemistry and physics. His omissions tell us more about him than his narrative. Unless you have a particular penchant for the hard sciences, you may find yourself frustrated in this read. ( )
1 vote Osdolai | Jan 20, 2019 |
May not be that cool to the layman (and I'm included). ( )
  Spr1t3 | Jul 31, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
Romantic chemistry sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the two words pair naturally in this book.
added by Katya0133 | editEconomist
 
When Mr. Sacks departs from the narrative of his childhood to serve up lengthy digressions on the finer points of rare earth metals or electromagnetic reactions, his writing can lapse into textbook lecturing, but even these dense, scientific passages are enlivened by his boyish wonder at the amazing logic and strangeness of the world.
added by Katya0133 | editNew York Times, Michiko Kakutani
 
Thus this is both the story of a particular English boy's life just before, during, and after World War II and a maximally engaging, personalized overview of chemistry, from Robert Boyle to Madame Curie.
added by Katya0133 | editBooklist, Ray Olson
 
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for Roald
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Many of my childhood memories are of metals: these seemed to exert a power on me from the start.
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He loved doing housecalls more than anything else, for they were social and sociable as well as medical, would allow him to enter a family and home, get to know everybody and their circumstances, see the whole complexion and context of a condition. Medicine, for him, was never just diagnosing a disease, but had to be seen and understood in the context of patients' lives, the particularities of their personalities, their feelings, their reactions.
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Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals-also by chemical reactions (the louder and smellier the better), photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In this endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, the author chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded. In Uncle Tungsten we meet Sacks' extraordinary family, from his surgeon mother, who introduces the fourteen-year-old Oliver to the art of human dissection, and his father, a family doctor who imbues in his son an early enthusiasm for housecalls, to his "Uncle Tungsten," whose factory produces tungsten-filament light bulbs. We follow the young Oliver as he is exiled at the age of six to a grim, sadistic boarding school to escape the London Blitz, and later watch as he sets about passionately reliving the exploits of his chemical heroes, in his own home laboratory. Uncle Tungsten is a crystalline view of a brilliant young mind springing to life, a story of growing up which is by turns elegiac, comic, and wistful, full of the electrifying joy of discovery.

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