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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood Hardcover – October 16, 2001

4.6 out of 5 stars 165 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Oliver Sacks's luminous memoir 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 colors, 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 endeavor. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Sacks, a neurologist perhaps best known for his books Awakenings (which became a Robin Williams/Robert De Niro vehicle) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, invokes his childhood in wartime England and his early scientific fascination with light, matter and energy as a mystic might invoke the transformative symbolism of metals and salts. The "Uncle Tungsten" of the book's title is Sacks's Uncle Dave, who manufactured light bulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire, and who first initiated Sacks into the mysteries of metals. The author of this illuminating and poignant memoir describes his four tortuous years at boarding school during the war, where he was sent to escape the bombings, and his profound inquisitiveness cultivated by living in a household steeped in learning, religion and politics (both his parents were doctors and his aunts were ardent Zionists). But as Sacks writes, the family influence extended well beyond the home, to include the groundbreaking chemists and physicists whom he describes as "honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection." Family life exacted another transformative influence as well: his older brother Michael's psychosis made him feel that "a magical and malignant world was closing in about him," perhaps giving a hint of what led the author to explore the depths of psychosis in his later professional life. For Sacks, the onset of puberty coincided with his discovery of biology, his departure from his childhood love of chemistry and, at age 14, a new understanding that he would become a doctor. Many readers and patients are happy with that decision. (Oct.)Forecast: This book is as well-written as Sacks's earlier works, and should get fans engrossed in the facts of his life and opinions. Look for an early spike on the strength of his name, and strong sales thereafter.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 16, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375404481
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375404481
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (165 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #567,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By ealovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"It often happens that the mind of a person who is learning a new science, has to pass through all the phases which the science itself has exhibited in its historical evolution." (Stanislao Cannizzaro, Italian chemist, 1826 - 1910).
These words had a powerful resonance for Oliver Sacks. When the gifted neurologist wrote his autobiography, he also wrote a history of chemistry as recapitulated through his own childhood experiences. He grew up in a very scientific family--his mother and father were physicians, and his uncle Dave (the 'Uncle Tungsten' of the title) was both a chemist and a business entrepreneur, who "would spend hundreds of hours watching all the processes in his factories: the sintering and drawing of the tungsten, the making of the coiled coils and molybdenum supports for the filaments, the filling of the bulbs with argon..."
Uncle Tungsten allowed his nephew to perform chemical experiments in his laboratory, which contained samples of almost every element. Oliver's "physics uncle," Uncle Abe had a small telescopic observatory on top of his house, where he demonstrated the wonders of spectroscopy to his nephew: "The whole visible universe--planets, stars, distant galaxies--presented itself for spectroscopic analysis, and I got a vertiginous, almost ecstatic satisfaction from seeing familiar terrestrial elements out in space, seeing what I had known only intellectually before, that the elements were not just terrestrial but cosmic, were indeed the building blocks of the universe."
No wonder young Oliver grew up with a love for the elements and their chemistry!
Rarely do I read an autobiography and envy the author his childhood--most recent examples of this genre, e.g.
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Format: Hardcover
Oliver Sacks, best known for writing about the fantastic consequences of neurological abnormalities (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), takes us on a journey through his childhood in Uncle Tungsten. Deftly mixing the most intriguing aspects of the history of chemistry with his own experiences as a boy and adding the spark of a unique writing ability, he's utilized the principles of chemical lab work to produce something new and different--a book that revels in the most fundamental aspects of exploring the physical sciences.
Sacks was fortunate to be born into a family heavily composed of scientists: physicians, chemists, physicists, and metallurgists, like his "Uncle Tungsten." Both of his parents were physicians and indulged his curiousities by allowing him to set up his own lab in their house, where he familiarized himself with the history of chemistry by recreating many famous experiments and also trying many more of his own devising. Descriptions of his family life and his exploration into science are filled with wonder and with love for the world we live in.
Uncle Tungsten is a book to relish--written in everyday language, not in stuffy scientific terms--a book filled with the joy of youth, the fascination of discovery, and the wonderment of life. I would recommend it to anyone interested in science and nature, to anyone trying to understand those around them who love science so much, and to anyone in junior high or high school who wonders why they have to study chemistry!
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Format: Hardcover
It is always a joy to read Dr. Sacks. He is a sensitive, honest, and caring author. His other books (with the exception of "A Leg to Stand On") are all reports of his interactions with people exceptional neurological conditions. In "Uncle Tungsten," Dr. Sacks writes about his own past.
Sacks is a truly gifted writer. Some of his pieces in the past have stunned me with their beauty. That said, he has never created a fuller, more compelling portrait than the depiction he gives of his mother here. What a special woman she must have been. He clearly loves her still. This book is as much of a love story as it is a history.
Sack's recollections are laced through with his early encounters with science in its many forms. He speaks lovingly of his interactions with Chemistry. The education his mother provided him in anatomy also looms large in the images of his early years.
While I have always been a fan of Sacks because of his insights into the human condition, I can see the special appeal this book would have to those who have a love for science (my wife loves biology). Sacks writes of it with passion and awe. It was interesting for me, and I've never been much of a fan of science.
I recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Oliver Sacks' memoir is shining, enlivened by curiosity, filled with joy. He has recaptured the boy he was, and "Uncle Tungsten" lets us experience the world as that boy knew it. My husband is a cloud physicist, and reading this book helped me see how he became entranced by science, by the wonders of the physical world, metamorphosing even as we look upon it.
Born in l933, well before television cartoons and video games, Sacks was left to his own devices. His broad intelligence led him down many roads, and his tolerant parents indulged his love for explorations in chemistry. During WW II, when he was six years old, he was evacuated from London home to a country boarding school, where the headmaster inflicted physical and emotional abuse upon his young charges. The trauma Sack underwent there, in addition to the horrors visited upon England by the war, caused him to lose faith in the omnipotent God of his Jewish tradition. His new faith became science, and he brought to it all the passion and dedication of his orthodox forebears.
In adolescence, sadly, he lost this flaming enthusiam, much as many teenagers "lose their faith"; and he turned to the conventional medical career his parents envisioned for him. Now, in late mid-life, his spiritual journey has brought him full circle to his early love again. His joy in scientific enquiry will ignite a similar joy in the reader.
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