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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical…

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)

by Oliver Sacks

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1,757426,214 (3.99)54
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 of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings 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 lightbulbs. 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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Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
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 |
There's a "Radiolab" episode in which Oliver Sacks talks about his interest in samples of chemical elements; this is basically a longer and even more wonderful version of that, in which he ties in family history, personal memoir, and the history of chemistry (and a bit of physics too). A delight to read. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Dec 3, 2017 |
Autobiography of his 'chemical childhood'. Fascinating stuff, but left me feeling slightly inadequate - why was I goofing off as a 10 year old when Sacks at that age was reading Curie's bio & replicating her chemistry?
Read June 2006 ( )
  mbmackay | Dec 6, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (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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Many of my childhood memories are of metals: these seemed to exert a power on me from the start.
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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