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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood Hardcover – October 16, 2001
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"In Uncle Tungsten Sacks evokes, with warmth and wit, his upbringing in wartime England. He tells of the large science-steeped family who fostered his early fascination with chemistry. There follow his years at boarding school where, though unhappy, he developed the intellectual curiosity that would shape his later life. And we hear of his return to London, an emotionally bereft ten-year-old who found solace in his passion for learning. Uncle Tungsten radiates all the delight and wonder of a boy’s adventures, and is an unforgettable portrait of an extraordinary young mind. ‘If you did not think that gallium and iridium could move you, this superb book will change your mind’ The Times ‘Uncle Tungsten is really about the raw joy of scientific understanding . . . Sacks perfectly captures the sheer thrill of finding intelligible patterns in nature’ Guardian ‘His boyhood passion was for chemistry: and this is a marvelous memoir of his early “love affair” with it . . . It is rare to read so rich and honest a description of an intellectual coming of age" Daily Telegraph
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Dr. Sacks' love of chemistry easily shone through his writing, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for the science, the history of the field, and a better understanding of what led to the current arrangement of the periodic table of the elements. His stories also helped me understand just how important a solid understanding of chemistry is to the workings of the human body.
This book also left me with a greater longing for open-ended time of experimentation and discovery (much as he had had in his youth), stymied only by a desire not to burn my own home down, as well as a hope to instill the same interest in experimentation and discovery in others.
I enjoyed the book so much that I bought my own copy in the hopes that my children will discover it in their future.
Sacks starts by describing his life as almost a nightmare of incompassion. Living in wartorn London during the Second World War, his school life was filled with horror and pain. But the young Sacks retreated mentally into a world of mathematics, chemistry and physics. From Fibonacci mathematical series to the history of the building of the periodic chart of the elements, Sacks describes not only the discoveries of chemists from Newton through Nils Bohr, but also his incredible empirical chemical experiments. He reveals some basic chemical facts, known truly only to real chemists, despite what basic chemistry one might have had in school, his revelations are truly breathtaking and amazing in some cases.
And as he describes his experiences with life and chemistry, he also tells of the uncertainty that is generated by the search for certainty and stability. While never actually mentioning it by name, he does reference Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which says that one can know either the velocity or the position of an electron orbiting a atomic nucleus, but one can never know both simultaneously. In many ways it was this uncertainty and Einstein's theory of relativity, that in effect says that everything is relative to your particular frame of reference, that made Sacks progress from his fascination with science and mathematics into a new real world of Biology and Medicine. But, although the discoveries of the great physicists of the 1920's introduced tremendous uncertainty, that is, matter is both a particle and a wave, electrons are never totally predictable and radioactive substances deteriorate at a precise rate, whose half life can be specifically determined, but that precision does nothing to predict exactly the fate of any specific atom. Each atom's existence is determined virtually by chance in a radioactive substance and each can last for a fraction of a second or for 100 million years, until the event that causes it to finally deteriorate actually occurs. Those selfsame discoveries do in fact, lend stability to life in their instability.
Forever after, Sacks would be influenced in his life by those early experiments and discoveries, as well as what he learned by reading about the discoveries of others. And, even to this day, he still sees the world in terms of those early concepts of chemistry, which so infused his boyhood with meaning and substance. A tremendous work, recommended to anyone who has a curious mind and a yearning for finding the meaning of existence.