Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

3.6 13
by Oliver Sacks
     
 

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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

Overview

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When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life.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.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com
The Barnes & Noble Review
This marvelous autobiographical tale is more about chemistry than the day-to-day doings of its subject, and that may be what gives it its considerable charm.

Evacuated from wartime London at the age of six, Sacks spent four years at a boarding school in the country, where he suffered deeply from neglect and the sadistic cruelty of the headmaster. What sustained him was a budding scientific sensibility, which distracted him from his own misery and focused his gaze on the immutable and minute mysteries of the natural world. After he was returned home, this incipient passion blossomed into a full-blown obsession with chemistry. And here the adventure begins.

Sacks writes: "My first taste was for the spectacular -- the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs, which almost define a first entry into chemistry." With a few key texts in hand, the smitten boy sets out systematically to perform for himself all the experiments they describe, determined to live the history of chemistry in himself. He shares that history with us, from Lavoisier's conquest over phlogiston to Davy's elegant dissection of compounds by electrolysis to Dalton's stubborn insistence on the existence of the atom, which inspires in him "a sort of rapture, thinking that the mysterious proportionalities and numbers one saw on a gross scale in the lab might reflect an invisible, infinitesimal, inner world of atoms, dancing, touching, attracting, and combining" -- a glorious epiphany that every lover of chemistry gets to experience for himself.

Sacks is encouraged in his chemical pursuits by a cast of eccentric family members, each with his or her own brand of scientific obsession. The best is Uncle Dave, affectionately dubbed Uncle Tungsten, for he lives and breathes that versatile metal. Oddly, Sacks was not destined to become a chemist. For some reason never fully understood, he and his first love parted ways when he was about 14 or 15, and he ultimately went on to become a renowned neurologist. Nevertheless, we can take solace in knowing that the life-affirming intellectual passion that chemistry imparted to him was not to be wasted. (Amy Bianco)

David Lodge
In Uncle Tungsten, Sacks carries this project into new and more personal territory. It is an unusual book, for it combines autobiography with a good deal of scientific information. (The only comparable work I can think of is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.) Most readers will probably be drawn to it, and compelled to go on turning the pages, by the vivid evocation of the author's early life and remarkable family background. But this narrative is cleverly spliced with chapters on key discoveries in the history of physical science as they were assimilated by the young Sacks, and by the end of the book readers will find that they have learned, fairly painlessly, a good deal about science themselves.
WashingtonPost.com
Natalie Angier
This memoir is a rare gem in a flea-market genre: it teaches us about much more than the life and whines of Oliver Sacks. At the same time, the author doesn't hide behind other lives or pedantry, or waggle his intellect like a sort of showy, distracting secondary sexual characteristic. Bit by bit, we come to know him, his sorrows, his emotional longings and limitations. With Uncle Tungsten, Sacks has reignited the fire, so the rest of us can read by its glow.
nytimes.com
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.
KLIATT
Neurologist Sacks, famous for his book Awakenings (which was made into a film starring Robin Williams) among other case studies on the often peculiar workings of the brain, here describes his early fascination with science, and in particular chemistry, in an erudite, beautifully written, delightful and often funny memoir. Sacks grew up in wartime London, in a Jewish family of talented scientists. Both his parents were physicians; his "Uncle Tungsten" (really Dave) manufactured light bulbs with tungsten filaments. Other relatives were scientists and doctors as well, and all encouraged his interest in the "stinks and bangs" of chemistry, and his explorations in photography, magnetism, and radiology, too. Exiled to a cruel boarding school to avoid the Blitz, concerned that like one of his older brothers he might go mad, Sacks sought refuge as a child in the order and constancy of chemistry. In addition to experimenting in a home lab (conveniently located near the back garden, so that if something caught fire "I could rush outside with it and fling it on the lawn"), he studied and greatly admired the early chemists such as Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier, Humphry Davy, and Marie Curie. He makes their explorations and achievements come alive for the reader; this is as much a history of the science of chemistry as a memoir of Sacks' early years, and he manages to interweave the two effortlessly, drawing memorable portraits of chemists and physicists as well as family members. One can see how his interest in "the human aspects" of science developed. It doesn't take a scientific background to enjoy Sacks' memoir, but his passion for his subject matter is contagious, and even non-scientificallyinclined readers will enjoy this and come away with a new appreciation of the field of chemistry. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, Vintage, 338p. illus.,
— Paula Rohrlick
From the Publisher
"Dr.Sacks mourns, with a Wordsworthian sense of loss, the passing of those 'lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood', those 'sudden landscapes of glory and illumination'. And yet the mixture of rekindled passion, humility and humour with which the older man pays homage to the boy, shows just how little he has faded into the light of common day."

-The Economist

"Good prose is often described as glowing: luminous, numinous, glimmering, shimmering, incandescent, radiant. Sacks's writing is all that, and sometimes, no matter how closely you read it, you can't quite figure out what makes it so precisely, unsparingly light...By the time he was 15...Sacks's attention began drifting away from chemistry...He can't quite say why he abandoned his first love and Mendeleev's Garden. His 'intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School?...The inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that burns hotly, brightly...and then, exhausting itself, gutters out?' No matter. With Uncle Tungsten, Sacks has reignited the fire, so the rest of us can read by its glow."

-The New York Times Book Review

"Artful, impassioned memoir of a youth spent lost in the blinding light of chemistry from neurologist/essayist Sacks. . . . . In a kind and gracious voice, Sacks guides readers on his journey of passionate discovery into the romance of chemistry. . . . The realm of science is alchemy in Sacks's hands as he spins pure gold from base metals."
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks weaves together the wonders of chemistry and his boyhood experiences with grace, ease, and just the right comedic touch. The result is a rich, unique, and compelling glimpse into the development of an enormously fertile and creative mind."
-Brian Greene

"A gift from a wonderful man and a masterful scholar and writer. This sharing of life can only merit the chemist's symbol for Tungsten: W --a winner!" -Stephen Jay Gould

"Oliver Sacks is an extraordinary soul-scientist and artist, healer and explorer-and he has given us an extraordinary memoir. Uncle Tungsten is profoundly illuminating and continually surprising."
-James Gleick

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780330523660
Publisher:
Picador USA
Publication date:
10/28/2011

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

A master at creating compassionate drama from the uncanny dysfunctions of the brain, Dr. Sacks is a world-renowned neurologist, humanist and best selling author of astonishing case histories. Patients who are suddenly awakened after 40 years in a catatonic trance. A student whose drug use left him recognizing loved ones only by smell. An autistic Ph.D. who cannot perceive the simplest human emotions but prefers the mechanical "hug" of her squeeze machine. These are the real people who have become unforgettable characters in the life and works of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

In 1966, he first encountered the survivors of the great epidemic of sleeping sickness, which had killed millions in the 1920':s. With his administration of the new drug L-DOPA, he saw these patients - frozen for decades - awaken with "an explosive quality, as of corks released from a great depth." His bestselling book about their experiences, Awakenings, inspired Harold Pinter':s play, A Kind of Alaska (produced both in London and New York) and the Penny Marshall film Awakenings, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year.

The bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat brought Sacks': work to even greater public attention with heartbreaking and inspiring tales of patients with perceptions remarkably altered by various neurological conditions. It was adapted into a play by Peter Brook and an opera by Michael Nyman, both produced worldwide.

"Oliver Sacks was truly wonderful. I was amazed that he could communicate so intimately with an audience of 800 people, which he did, and still talk so thoughtfully and intelligently about creativity, providing every person with something to think about."
Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program

His more recent works include The Island of the Colorblind, which combines his fascination with medical mysteries with his love of botany and South Seas travel; and An Anthropologist on Mars, a collection of clinical tales. One of these tales inspired the feature film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino. A multi-part BBC-TV series Oliver Sacks: The Mind Traveler, was featured in the United States on PBS.

In the fall of 2001, Dr. Sacks will publish Uncle Tungsten: Memories of A Chemical Boyhood, in which he looks back at his childhood in wartime London, revealing his boyhood love of chemistry as the source of his life long scientific curiosity. He is a member of the faculty at New York University Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Sacks celebrates the humanity of those whose minds are imprisoned by a different consciousness and applauds "the freedom and potential of the human spirit against a physiological fate." His warmth and wisdom have made him a beloved public speaker.

Meet the Author

As a physician and a writer, Oliver Sacks is concerned above all with the link between body and mind, and the ways in which the whole person adapts to different neurological conditions.

Oliver Sacks was born July 9, 1933 in London (both of his parents were physicians), and he obtained his medical degree in 1958 from Oxford University. In the early 1960s, he moved to the United States, where he did an internship at Mount Zion Hospital (UCSF) in San Francisco and then a residency in neurology at UCLA. Since 1965 he has lived in New York, where he is clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and consultant neurologist to the Little Sisters of the Poor and Beth Abraham Hospital.

In 1966 Dr. Sacks went to work in a chronic hospital in the Bronx (Beth Abraham Hospital) where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, unable to initiate movement, like human statues -- they were survivors of the great epidemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916-1927. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings (1973), which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter, "A Kind of Alaska," and the 1990 Hollywood movie,"Awakenings," starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Dr. Sacks is perhaps best known for his best selling 1985 collection of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and in 1989 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on the neuroanthropology of Tourette's syndrome, a condition marked by involuntary tics and utterances.

His seven books, which also include Migraine, A Leg To Stand On, Seeing Voices, An Anthropologist On Mars, and, most recently, The Island Of The Colorblind, are international bestsellers. In the fall of 2001, Dr. Sacks will publish Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, in which he looks back at his childhood in wartime London, revealing his boyhood love of chemistry as the source of his life long scientific curiosity.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
New York, New York
Date of Birth:
1933
Place of Birth:
London, England
Education:
B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958

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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Engaging memoir covering Sachs' life in London before and after the Blitz and WWII. Sachs specifically focuses on his boyhood introduction to chemistry as encouraged by his uncles. Allowed to experiment with metals, acids and other intriguing substances, Sachs gained a rare education regarding their properties and the genius of the periodic chart. 'Uncle Tungsten' also provides a clear context for modern chemistry, as Sachs grew up at a critical turning point in its development. It's the sort of book that textbooks ought to be--practical, humorous, poignant and bordering on the spiritual.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books. The low ratings make no sense to me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I always liked physics more than chemistry, but after completing this book I actually got out the old chemistry book to learn more. However, any "education" that comes with this book is secondary to the entertainment. The perspective of a young boy interested in science brought back a few memories of mine, and made this a difficult book for me to put down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Uncle Tungsten is a great read for the chemist, science teacher or student. I'm using sections of it in my AP Chemistry course even. Dr. Sacks narrative is a wonderful read and his enthusiasm for science is very apparent. In an era where there are very few books that encourage an enthusiasm for science and investigation, this is a welcome surprise! Having come myself from a research background before becoming a teacher, I am an enthusiastic proponent of lab work, experiments, and investigation. I hope that my students will go into science because of me, not in spite of me, and I'm very glad to have a book of this quality to share with my students.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was forced to read this memoir for the Honors Chemistry class I will be taking in 10th grade. Having heard the grumblings of older students, who too were forced to read it, I was undoubtely dreading the 317 pages. When I finally opened the book I was suprised by the content. That's not to say that I enjoyed it or thought it was well written. I was suprised at how often Sacks goes into complicated chemistry. MOst of the memoir is in fact not a memoir but a retelling of the history of chemistry. While Sacks occasionaly included a childhood memory or two, most of the memoir was pure science. At some points, he goes so far into detail that I feel as if I'm reading a textbook. So, overall it wasn't good. If you have a genuine interest in science and the history of chemistry, then you will most likely enjoy this book. However, if you are reading it expecting a genuine memoir or being forced to read it by you chemistry teacher, you will not enjoy this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was hard to understand there was too much talk of chemical processes. If I wanted to read a chemistry textbook I would have.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For my 11th grade chemistry class I had to read two books relating to chemistry. One of the books I chose was this one: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It was okay it was not one of those books where you just could not put it down. I sometimes found my self drifting into other thoughts and not really paying attention to what I was reading at all. I think that if I was more interested in what he was talking about, then I would have really loved it. When I first started reading it, it was hard to stay with each of the chapters, because each one was a different story within its self. Basically, the title of the chapter was what that chapter was going to be about. In my opinion, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best and 1 being the worst, I would give this book a 5. I would because it didn't interest me, it couldn't keep my attention, and a lot of the time I thought it was boring. However, if you are into chemistry and science experiments, then this is a book for you. It tells you a lot of facts and may even make you more interested in the science world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For my 11th grade chemistry class I had to read two books realating to chemistry. One of the books I chose was this one: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It was okay it wasn't one of those books where you just couldn't put it down. I sometimes found my self drifting into other thoughts and not really paying attention to what I was reading at all. I think that if I was more interested in what he was talking about, then I would have really loved it. At first it was hard to stay with each chapter, because each one was a different story within its self. Basically, the title of the chapter was what it was about. In my opinion, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best, I would give this a 5. I would because it didn't interest me, it couldn't keep my attention, and a lot of the time it was boring. However, if you are into chemistry and science experiments, then this is a book for you. It tells you a lot of facts and may even make you more interested in the science world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I majored in chemistry in college, I am now a professor in a major medical school, focusing on AIDS research. So I can relate to Sacks' intrigue with chemistry, but eventually his changing fields. It was interesting, amd I enjoyed the history of chemistry/science portions. But I wouldn't recommend it to my colleagues unless they had a 'chemical mind.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
New Scientist recently published an article describing the real reason scientists do science: It's FUN! Clearly the young Oliver Sachs knew this as well, and his autobiography conveys all of that fun. I work in scientific research myself, and I couldn't wait to try some of Sachs' experiments. The experiments themselves don't exactly advance scientific knowledge, but there I was, armed with a shelf of chemicals, a cupboard of equipment and a laboratory bench... If you want to know what makes scientists tick, this is the book. If you want to inspire an interest in chemistry, this is the book. My only complaint was Sachs' eventual departure from chemistry in adolescence. I felt immensely disappointed that he could leave so much fun behind.
authormom More than 1 year ago
Story drags. Not well written.