Uncle Tungsten: memories of a chemical boyhood

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Alfred A. Knopf, Oct 16, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 337 pages
3 Reviews
From his earliest days, Oliver Sacks, the distinguished neurologist who is also one of the most remarkable storytellers of our time, was irresistibly drawn to understanding the natural world. Born into a large family of doctors, metallurgists, chemists, physicists, and teachers, his curiosity was encouraged and abetted by aunts, uncles, parents, and older brothers. But soon after his sixth birthday, the Second World War broke out and he was evacuated from London, as were hundreds of thousands of children, to escape the bombing. Exiled to a school that rivaled Dickens's grimmest, fed on a steady diet of turnips and beetroots, tormented by a sadistic headmaster, and allowed home only once in four years, he felt desolate and abandoned.

When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life. He was sustained by his secret passions: for numbers, for metals, and for finding patterns in the world around him. Under the tutelage of his "chemical" uncle, Uncle Tungsten, Sacks began to experiment with "the stinks and bangs" that almost define a first entry into chemistry: tossing sodium off a bridge to see it take fire in the water below; producing billowing clouds of noxious-smelling chemicals in his home lab. As his interests spread to investigations of batteries and bulbs, vacuum tubes and photography, he discovered his first great scientific heroes, men and women whose genius lay in understanding the hidden order of things and disclosing the forces that sustain and support the tangible world. There was Humphry Davy, the boyish chemist who delighted in sending flaming globules of metal shooting across his lab; Marie Curie, whose heroic efforts in isolating radium would ultimately lead to the unlocking of the secrets of the atom; and Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table, whose pursuit of the classification of elements unfolds like a detective story.

Uncle Tungsten vividly evokes a time when virtual reality had not yet displaced a hands-on knowledge of the world. It draws us into a journey of discovery that reveals, through the enchantment and wonder of a childhood passion, the birth of an extraordinary and original mind.

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Usually when I read a book, I dog-ear pages that have meaningful quotes or interesting paragraphs or new ideas. Then I go back when I'm done and re-read. This book had many, many dog-ears but they were mostly words I didn't know or books I wanted to read. No really deep insights but, wow, Conan Doyle wrote a character named Professor Challenger? And I must track down these Mr. Tompkins books because maybe, just maybe, they will be able to make chemistry make sense.
I think this would have been a 4 star book if my brain had any ability to process the finer points of chemistry. As it stands, it is a fine memoir of a boy grasping for order in a war-torn world.
 

Review: Uncle Tungsten

User Review  - Phoebe - Goodreads

Oliver Sacks (I guess the family were likely Sachs once...) is the only man I know of who I wish had a bigger ego. This book purports to be an autobiography, but there is barely a chapter about Oliver ... Read full review

Contents

Uncle Tungsten
3
37 11 3 Exile
19
An Ideal Metal
32
Copyright

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About the author (2001)

Oliver Sacks is the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many other books, for which he has received numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, a Polk Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and lives in New York City, where he is a practicing neurologist.

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