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14 of 14 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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2 of 2 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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14 of 14 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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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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9 of 9 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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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 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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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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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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2 of 2 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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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A MAN, A METAL ...... AND SOMETHING DEEPER, 6 Jan 2002
This review is from: Uncle Tungsten (Hardcover)
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Many of us as children would have first discovered the wonder-full world of science, by doing chemistry "experiments" and studying minerals. Oliver Sacks, when recounting his boyhood, takes us back to that time, when chemical reactions with their magical color changes, would open a child's imagination. This could feed their curiosity, and in turn, put them on a path to knowledge.
Sacks writes with crystalline clarity. He describes his childhood passion for science in a way that is intense, immediate and refreshing. Have chemical properties ever been described so lyrically? " The color of lilacs in spring for me is that of divalent vanadium. Radishes for me evoke the smell of vanadium".
Science for young Sacks went well beyond the bounds of facts and figures. For him it was almost a sensual and at times a spiritual thing. He uses musical analogies when describing the harmonics inherent in the symmetries of the Periodic Table of Elements.
Sacks unashamedly worships his scientific heroes. The great French chemist Lavoisier, was the first to develop a symbolic notation for chemical reactions that went beyond the simple icono-graphics (shorthand or cryptology?) of the alchemists. Sacks equates Lavoisier's "Elements of Chemistry" with Isaac Newton's "Principia".
With the invention of new scientific languages (eg chemical equations), advancement was no longer limited to the empiricism of the laboratory bench. New materials and processes could be conceptualized as "thought experiments" or put on paper, well before their actual discovery. Sacks marvels at the ability of the pioneering chemists who predicted the existence of new elements, purely by reason and deduction.
To the average person, science is often seen as a dry, cerebral, passionless activity. Sacks's strength as a writer is his ability to capture the exuberance and enthusiasm that underpins and drives most scientific ventures.
Many of Sacks's observations, although superficially simple, are in fact, profound. He reminds us that the crystalline symmetries seen in minerals are reflections of underlying atomic structures. Metals look metallic because of their surface's interaction with photons.
His personal voyage takes us from the simple causes and effects of the pre-quantum mechanical world of his younger days to the probabilistic uncertainties of the causeless (blameless?) adult world.
Sacks' writing provokes the thought, "how many quantum-related phenomena can we now see in our macro-world?" The random walk of Brownian motion (at a micro level) is everywhere, but the inverse-squared relationships (at a macro level) that are a consequence of Brownian paths, lead us to those step-like jumps that define "events" all around us, for example, everyday photoelectric phenomena.
Oliver Sacks must take the prize for being the most accessible writer of things cerebral. He doesn't allow his own intelligence to get in the way of being a clear communicator. His modesty is engaging. The understated revelation that it was Sacks as a 12 year-old on a British radio quiz show in 1945, who got Glen Seaborg to reveal the discovery of the latest trans-uranic elements, is buried in footnote 11 on p210.
One of the key messages in these memoirs is the importance of mentors to the young, growing mind. It was the advice, influence and support from Sacks' relatives, in particular Uncle Dave (U. Tungsten of the title) that allowed Oliver's potential to blossom.
There is only one detectable blooper in this biography, but whether it was Uncle Tungsten's or the author's is unclear. It is on the subject of the origin of diamonds. On p37. Uncle Dave is quoted by Oliver as saying "they are brought to the surface in kimberlite, tracking hundreds of miles from the earth's mantle, and then through the crust, very, very slowly, till they finally reached the surface". Yet, on p129, one of Oliver's heroes, Sir Humphrey Davy is "burning a diamond". Most geological textbooks will tell you that for diamonds to make it through to the earth's surface they have to be transported from the mantle extremely rapidly to avoid being turned into graphite or CO2.
The underlying theme of "Uncle Tungsten" is the convergence and ultimate unity, between man, the material world and the transcendental. It takes somebody with the intellect and power of communication like Oliver Sacks to convince us that our physical world, the domain of mind and ideas, and whatever is beyond, are bound together inseparably.
This book has to be rated as one of the best memoirs of its kind. Oliver Sacks' earlier works must now become essential (re-) reading.
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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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