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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passion for discovery
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...
Published on 21 Dec. 2003 by Stephen A. Haines

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag
This was recommended to me and my wife by two of our peers; all are retired graduate/doctorate chemists. I was unable to share the enthusiasm of the other three for the book which appears to have kindled their nostalgia from learning science. There is indeed a lot of interesting science between the covers, but for those topics of which I might need to be reminded I would...
Published on 8 Nov. 2011 by Justin Thyme


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passion for discovery, 21 Dec. 2003
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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. His biological endeavours were often less successful. He and his chums once drove the inhabitants of a house away for months until the noxious odour of rotting cuttlefish could be exorcised.
Although Sacks introduces a wealth of scientific information from a broad sweep of sources, there is not a dull page in this book. He describes the techniques to isolate elements in vivid detail, and you find yourself sharing the researcher's frustration to achieve the goal along with the exhilaration when success is achieved. You follow Sacks willingly as he plods through the museums and into shops buying chemicals. Mostly, you watch him as he begs Uncle Dave for materials or sits spellbound as "Uncle Tungsten" describes the properties of metals. Sacks' joys at "re-learning" what others have done is infectious - he leaves you longing to repeat the experiments for yourself - only to learn, of course, that today's caution has sequestered the materials away to prevent you blundering into harm. That's a sad testimony, but Sacks' journey through time and place remains for us to gain some sense of what it must be like to undertake scientific adventures. Every schoolchild should be in possession of this book as parents encourage them to "investigate and interrogate". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous but hardly an autobiography, 28 Oct. 2003
By A Customer
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
4.0 out of 5 stars sachs is his own best patient, 23 Dec. 2001
By A Customer
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling read, 12 Mar. 2003
By 
Simon Southwell (Bristol, U.K.) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Science can be fun!, 8 Mar. 2002
This review is from: Uncle Tungsten (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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Calling all scientists, 6 July 2006
By 
John (London, England) - See all my reviews
I adored this book. I got it from my local library and am now buying my own copy. However, I would add that I read chemistry at college and was recommended it by another chemist. It is not a particularly difficult book, I want my 14-year-old to read it, but it is much more chemistry than biography.

It also made me think about what is missing now the practical element has been taken from the education system in the UK now; if you want to inspire a bright teenager this is the way to do it (I particularly like the passage about the 3lb lump of sodium and the local pond - I won't spoil it for non-chemists).

The biographical detail is interspersed with chemical passages and potted biographies of Sack's favourite chemists from the past. The thing that stood out the most though, was the sheer excitement of living through science as it was refined and discovered. There was no atom bomb when the book started, that came along the way. One of Sack's uncles had a scintillation gadget with a tiny amount of radioactive substance that emitted radiation you could see. There is an excitement and enthusiasm not found in many books now.

As well as being gripped by the science, its application and the history, I found it an extremely well written book. I want to read his neurological books as a result.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag, 8 Nov. 2011
By 
This was recommended to me and my wife by two of our peers; all are retired graduate/doctorate chemists. I was unable to share the enthusiasm of the other three for the book which appears to have kindled their nostalgia from learning science. There is indeed a lot of interesting science between the covers, but for those topics of which I might need to be reminded I would go to the Internet or to a reference book, which this is not. "Uncle Tungsten" is a blend of autobiography, scientific fact and aspects of the history of science: a package which some will find an enjoyable smorgasbord but which I found uncomfortably immiscible.

Sachs was born in 1933 to a couple of talented medical doctors within a wider family of Jewish intellectual professionals. Undoubtedly highly intelligent and gifted, the precocious Sachs flourished in this uniquely privileged environment. In particular "Uncle Tungsten" introduced him at an early age to the wonders of science although I doubt that this was quite as extensive as the author would have the reader believe; I suspect that much of the scientific knowledge in the book was acquired later, possibly even in retirement. Otherwise it is unclear why Sachs rejected physical science as a career in favour of neurology and psychology.

The experiences during his peculiar Jewish upbringing and schooling, during and after WWII and the accounts of eccentricities of his relatives all make fascinating reading but then they are irritatingly punctuated by another dose of scientific fact. A combination of detailed reports of scientific discovery, such as of radioactivity, with descriptions of events such as the author's first wet dream will strike some readers as incongruous and arbitrary. Perhaps a purpose of the writer is to impress us that he, like his buddy Jonathan Miller, is a formidable polymath: one of the "chosen people".

Readers without an existing grounding in science might find it difficult to persevere to the end of the book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Metaphor of Chemistry, 2 Dec. 2007
By 
Dr. Sacks has written a number books beautifully crafted around the fascinating neurological lives of his patients. And to an extent in them we can glimpse the limitations of neurololgy in providing finer and finer observations but until recent years only more limited clinical help.But Oliver Sacks has always managed this with an apparent self effacing humanity.
In Uncle Tungsten he turns the magnifying glass on himself and we watch his own growth and development through the metaphor of the Periodic Table of the Elements.
His humanity shone through and when I came to the end,too soon, I was so engrossed that I was uncertain whether I had been reading his autobiography or my own.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Childhood science and escapism, 25 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Paperback)
For almost a fortnight I came home to this - often when I was quite stressed - and found comfort in Sacks' account of his gradual discovery of chemistry that mirrors the historical explorations of the early chemists.

Whether or not this was quite how he discovered chemistry - as he explored the early chemical works of eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists - it is a structure that works marvellously. He takes you through the puzzles and challenges that tested the people who set out to get matter to tell its secrets. Nothing is obvious in advance - and the gradual unwrapping of the inner numerical order of the atom and the periodic table is presented in a series of breakthroughs.

I could not have predicted in advance that to understand what might lie behind what he was saying, I would be drawn to read a GCSE chemistry text book in parallel with this. Nor that I would have pored over his account of chemical bonding, electrons, rare earth metals and chromatography.

Sacks brings in just enough emotional detail - his evacuation from his home, beatings by a traumatised headmaster, sudden deaths of close relatives and friends, GP parents perpetually on call, uncles running a light bulb factory with a research lab, others geologists, mother a trained chemist - to make you understand why it was natural that this boy chemist would be blowing up and burning poisonous substances in the back scullery. It is as if science is the ultimate transcendence as well as a way of capturing adult attention and support; and that paralleling the lives of the early scientists makes their life stories his own.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book - great price - slow delivery, 24 Jan. 2010
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Great book. Engaging autobiography and also very informative when it comes to chemistry. The closest I've come to understanding quantum physics was while reading this book, as he explains the history of how the understanding of elements and atoms developed over time.

Also, this was a 2nd-hand hardback copy sent over from the USA, which I had bought as a gift, having read it myself a few years back. I was struck by how much better quality the US version was, compared to the UK hardback version I had bought for myself. I'm told by a retired publisher that this is normal, and is a result of the economics of larger print runs enabling more money to be spent on design. The paper was better quality and the print, although slightly smaller, was sharper and eaier to read.

The down-side to getting it from the States though - apart from different spelligns of course - is that it took 3 weeks to arrive. They did say that's how long it could take so I can't complain, and I would definitly consider buying books from the States again.
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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (Paperback - 10 May 2012)
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