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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

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When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life.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

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Editorial Reviews

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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
“A rare gem…. Fresh, joyous, wistful, generous, and tough-minded.”–The New York Times Book Review

“This book underlies everything else Dr. Sacks has written, and is worthy to stand with the great scientific memoirs, for it’s passion, its insight, its sense of history and its felicity.” –Paul Theroux

“Fired by Sacks’s enthusiasm–obviously genuine, impossible to feign–bursting forth in all directions. . . .The book recounts the growth of a formidable young mind opening up to the order and beauty of the material world.” –Newsday

“Sack’s study of a mind [is] as tough as tungsten, as fluid as mercury . . . as precious as gold.” –The Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780676972610
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 10/16/2001
  • Pages: 352

Meet the Author

Oliver Sacks
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.

Biography

"I think writing and language are not just to articulate or communicate, but they are also to investigate," the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks once said. "For me, writing and medicine, writing and science, are not separate: they entail each other." Sacks grew up in a large and prodigiously gifted family of scientists; with their encouragement, he set up his own chemistry lab and spent his days in a swirl of sulfurous fumes and smoke. He was also fascinated by biographies, and spent hours poring over the lives of great scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev, Humphrey Davy,and Marie Curie. When the chaos of World War II and traumatic experiences at boarding school intruded on the "lyrical, mystical perceptions" of Sacks' childhood, he clung to scientific knowledge as a means of ordering and understanding the universe.

After his medical training at Oxford, Sacks migrated to the States to pursue a career in neurology research. But he made a clumsy lab researcher. "I was always dropping things or breaking things," he explained in a lecture, "and eventually they said: 'Get out! Go work with patients. They're less important.'" Sacks went to work at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he was struck by the sight of patients who had survived encephalitis lethargica, the "sleeping sickness." The patients were nearly immobile, but the nurses who cared for them insisted that there were living personalities behind the frozen masks, and Sacks believed the nurses. The story of his work with these patients is told in Sacks' 1973 book Awakenings, which inspired a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro and also formed the basis of a play by Harold Pinter.

But Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars et al.), which probe the experiences of people with disorders and rare neurological conditions. In telling their stories, he often questions our assumptions about the nature of human consciousness. Part what distinguishes Sacks' work from the traditional case study is his interest in how a patient functions with a disorder, not just how he or she is impaired by it.

Sacks has also drawn on personal experience for wonderfully resonant scientific memoirs that recall his remarkable family, people who have influenced and inspired him, and his lifelong love of medicine and physical science. Meanwhile, he continues to work with patients, to understand them through writing about them, and to point his readers toward new ways of understanding themselves. As Thomas P. Sakmar, interim president of Rockefeller University, said in awarding Sacks the Lewis Thomas Prize: "Sacks presses us to follow him into uncharted regions of human experience -- and compels us to realize, once there, that we are confronting only ourselves."

Good To Know

As a child, Sacks was fascinated by the periodic table of the elements at the Science Museum in London. His boyhood love of chemistry hasn't waned: according to an article in Wired, Sacks owns half a dozen T-shirts with the periodic table printed on them, along with periodic-table coffee mugs, tote bags and mousepads.

Sacks's memoir Uncle Tungsten inspired the creation of Theodore Gray's Periodic Table Table, a wooden table representing Mendeleev's table of the elements and containing samples of each element. Sacks later paid a visit to see the Periodic Table Table -- wearing, of course, one of his periodic-table T-shirts.

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

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&#39: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&#39: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&#39: 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.

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Table of Contents

1. Uncle Tungsten 3
2. "37" 11
3. Exile 19
4. "An Ideal Metal" 32
5. Light for the Masses 46
6. The Land of Stibnite 54
7. Chemical Recreations 67
8. Stinks and Bangs 77
9. Housecalls 91
10. A Chemical Language 101
11. Humphry Davy: A Poet-Chemist 117
12. Images 132
13. Mr. Dalton's Round Bits of Wood 147
14. Lines of Force 156
15. Home Life 170
16. Mendeleev's Garden 187
17. A Pocket Spectroscope 212
18. Cold Fire 221
19. Ma 233
20. Penetrating Rays 244
21. Madame Curie's Element 254
22. Cannery Row 268
23. The World Set Free 281
24. Brilliant Light 293
25. The End of the Affair 309
Afterword 315
Acknowledgments 319
Index 321
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Interviews & Essays

Oliver Sacks' Science Project

From the November/December 2001 issue of Book magazine.

A man walks into a bar carrying a spectroscope. The punch line? There isn't one—this is just a typical Friday night for Oliver Sacks, world-famous neurologist. "They have all sorts of interesting fluorescent lights," says Sacks, who had wandered into a pub near his office in lower Manhattan. He has carried the pocket spectroscope—a device for observing the color breakdown of light—since childhood. "Within ten minutes I had everyone talking about spectroscopy instead of sex," he laughs. "An achievement!"

His enthusiasm for science is contagious, and it shows elsewhere—in his book sales, for one. Sacks, the author of highly readable and affecting case studies of the brain, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, is well on his way to doing for neuropathology what Stephen Hawking has done for physics and what Carl Sagan did for astronomy. Bearded and bespectacled at age sixty-eight, he has now written a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Sacks is lucky to have made it to memoir-writing age. He grew up in postwar London, and by the time he was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy he had torched, detonated and poisoned his way through the periodic table of elements in his own homemade lab. "We all got away with a lot," he admits, reminiscing about the chemical exploits he and his contemporaries pulled off as young scientists. "A colleague I know in Australia has burns all up and down his leg, and another one was deafened by a hydrogen explosion."

So it's not surprising that Sacks counts among his heroes a number of swashbuckling chemists (Humphry Davy, Marie Curie, Dmitri Mendeleev) who gave their lives, and sometimes limbs, to science. Uncle Tungsten is as much a paean to these explorers as it is a personal remembrance. The title character is the author's Uncle Dave, an early manufacturer of tungsten lightbulbs (tungsten is the metal with the highest melting point) and one of eighteen children raised by Sacks' science-mad maternal grandfather. Sacks himself was pushed to pursue medicine; he regularly accompanied his father, a motorcycle-driving doctor, on house calls. He dissected his first cadaver at fourteen and eventually became a bit of a motorcyclist himself—even riding with the Hell's Angels during his days as a student at UCLA.

But he also seems to have learned much from his mother. "My mother was like the ancient mariner," Sacks says. "She would sort of capture people and, for hours, she would invent very elaborate stories." When I came to this country, I had a sort of crisis in a way—I sort of wondered where I should live and what I should do and if I should be a writer. But then I also decided that while I might have a bit of talent, I had nothing to write about. Medicine came to my rescue this way." (Mary Christ)
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2013

    This is one of my favorite books. The low ratings make no sense

    This is one of my favorite books. The low ratings make no sense to me.

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