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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood Paperback – 24 Feb 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 337 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; New edition edition (24 Feb. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330390287
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330390286
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.5 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 511,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Oliver Sacks was born in London and educated in London, Oxford, California and New York. He now lives in America and practices neurology in New York, where he is also a professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is the author of ten books, including the bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings. His most recent book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain was an international bestseller. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the Hawthornden Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Oliver Sacks's luminous memoir Uncle Tungsten charts the growth of a mind. Born in 1933 into a family of formidably intelligent London Jews, he discovered the wonders of the physical sciences early from his parents and their flock of brilliant siblings, most notably "Uncle Tungsten" (real name, Dave), who "manufactured lightbulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire". Metals were the substances that first attracted young Oliver, and his descriptions of their colours, textures and properties are as sensuous and romantic as an art lover's rhapsodies over an Old Master. Seamlessly interwoven with his personal recollections is a masterful survey of scientific history, with emphasis on the great chemists like Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier and Humphry Davy (Sacks's personal hero). Yet this is not a dry intellectual autobiography; his parents in particular, both doctors, are vividly sketched. His sociable father loved house calls and "was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society", while his shy mother "had an intense feeling for structure... for her [medicine] was part of natural history and biology". For young Oliver, unhappy at the brutal boarding school he was sent to during the war, and afraid that he would become mentally ill like his older brother, chemistry was a refuge in an uncertain world. He would outgrow his passion for metals and become a neurologist, but as readers of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat know, he would never leave behind his conviction that science is a profoundly human endeavour. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'An intensely moving and funny account of his chaotic scientific upbringing.' -- Richard Holmes, Brilliant and Unusual Books about Science to inspire Non-Scientists - The Week

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 21 Dec. 2003
Format: Paperback
Oliver Sacks was gifted by his parents with the greatest boon any child could receive. From the start, he writes, he was "encouraged to interrogate, to investigate". With this mandate, he spent his childhood interrogating the history of science and scientists. He investigated the nature of chemicals, learned magnetism and electricity, and, in preparation for his anticipated medical career, probed into the mysteries of the body. This exquisite and frank account traces Sacks' boyhood in London - with side pauses to the schools attended - exposing his fears and ambitions with equal fervour.
Sacks' quest for knowledge mainly focussed on chemical elements and compounds, with metals dominating his attention. "Uncle Tungsten" [his uncle Dave] owned a lamp factory and provided both advice and materials. Sacks drew heavily on his expertise, but Dave often left him to experiment on his own. With a highly inquisitive mind and a drive to learn, Oliver often duplicated the research performed by notable figures of science to achieve the same ends. This technique provided great insight into the scientific method, allowing him to manufacture chemicals that might have been purchased at a nearby shop.
He learns the scientists' techniques through the blizzard of printed paper he plowed through during those years. Biographies, autobiographies, published journals and notebooks, all were his reading fare throughout his boyhood. He reminds us of the hazards of research from the burned hands and faces from potassium to the still-radioactive notebooks of Marie Curie, today stored in lead boxes. Setting up a laboratory in a back room of the family home, he followed their reasoning, their sense of discovery, and their techniques as he made bangs, smells, brilliant lights and beautiful crystals.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 28 Oct. 2003
Format: Paperback
I doubt that there is an actual neurological disorder that prevents Dr Sacks from revealing very much at all about himself in this entertaining book. He seldom touches on his own experiences and feelings during what was clearly a disturbing time when he was evacuated from London. Furthermore the book is named for an uncle but the cover shows young Oliver with his father who barely appears in the book. There are little or no reported conversations between Sacks and his father while there are great chunks of history devoted to the influence his uncles had and the anecdotes they shared.
Similarly his mother only truly comes to life in a conversation the older Sacks has with a former pupil of hers.
But while Sacks is begrudging with autobiographical information he is more than forthcoming with comprehensive biographies of some of the great scientists and chemical explorers of the past 400 years.
Once you put aside the idea that Uncle Tungsten is about Oliver Sacks and how he came to be a tremendous writer and explainer of neurological idiosyncrasies you have a book which entertains and amazes while reveling in the joy of scientific discovery.
Uncle Tungsten is a disappointment as an autobiography but a delight as a Sophie's World for science.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 23 Dec. 2001
Format: Hardcover
What a lovely book! After years of reading Oliver Sachs's account of any number of fascinating/odd/ill people and learning about his own quirks by reading between the lines, in Uncle Tungsten the protagonist is Oliver Sachs himself. This is a charming account of Sachs childhood in wartime London and his fascination with chemistry. Yes, there are times when my eyes skimmed over the names of the different elements and chemical properties and principles, but that was only because I wanted to rush along to more of the narrative, to young Oliver's sense of wonder and amazement, and to the tremendous love and humor that is conveyed throughout.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Simon Southwell on 12 Mar. 2003
Format: Paperback
This book is both a popular science book (about chemistry and physics) and an autobiography of a childhood in London spanning the second world war. The two are woven together beautifully. Oliver Sacks grew up with the science that he outlines in the book with some of the boyhood wonder he must have felt at the time. Anyone interested in biography shouldn't be daunted by the science aspect of the book, which introduces the atomic elements almost as characters populating the young Oliver's world. The stories of his remarkable family are also vivid and compelling, as well as tragic at times. You'll be suprised at the connection with every day technology and Oliver Sack's ancestry---their influence is still felt in the modern world.
The only gripe I have with the book is Oliver Sack's love of footnotes---some nearly 3/4 of a page long. However, this is only midly distracting, and (in a footnote) he reveals where he believes his affair with them arose in the first place.
I sincerely hope Oliver Sacks follows up this book, which ends when he's around 15 or 16, with further adventures of his life as I'm desparate to know the details of how this budding chemical boy turned into a world famous neurologist.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael Creasy on 8 Mar. 2002
Format: Hardcover
People often ask why so many students are put off science, particularly the physical sciences. This book has the answer. Science courses just don't convey the excitement and fun that can be had from experimenting in science. As a young boy Oliver Sacks was both fortunate and intelligent enough to be able to perform his own experiments, and repeat some of the classic experiments from the history of chemistry, photography and electromagnetism. Quite rightly, children today cannot perform many of these experiments because they are simply too dangerous. It is amazing what he could buy with his pocket money, and hard to believe he escaped without injuring himself!
Into this story Sacks weaves many anecdotes from the history of science, together with the more normal aspects of his boyhood (though little was normal in the Sacks' household). He really is a great storyteller and manages to transmit his tremendous enthusiasm to the reader. He is to chemistry what Gerald Durrell is to biology. Yet he also manages to get across much of the theoretical background without being dull.
So if anyone wants to share in the joy of scientific discovery, or needs ideas for making science exciting to students, they should read this book. If they can convey this sense of fun to their students they'll be turning them away from their classes.
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