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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  2,616 ratings  ·  303 reviews
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 sub...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 17th 2002 by Vintage (first published 2001)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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i do not understand science.

most phenomena i just dismiss with accusations of magic: the moon controls the tides?? but they are so far away!! oh, maaaagic!! leap year?? account for thyself!! magic?? got it. how did you make this pluot, sir?? ah, i see you are an alchemist!

much of it i have to blame on my high schooling because i have not studied any aspect of the sciences since then, but it's not like i have gone out of my way to do any research now that i am grown. i mean,they do make books af...more
Feb 20, 2012 Chrissie marked it as not-for-me  ·  review of another edition
I feel totally terrible on giving up on this book. It is a very good book, but I believe it will not be readable for many. Or maybe I should put it this way – it cannot be appreciated as it should be unless you either have a thorough knowledge of chemistry or are willing to read the book slowly and do the experiments, look at the pinecones and sunflowers and investigate alongside the author as he speaks of his childhood in London. His family is one of scholars. These people were those very few w...more
I read this, a chapter at a time, as bedtime reading for my 11-year-old son, who is very much into science, and said son is now fascinated with chemistry, its history, and all the people that were involved in many of the theories that have been proved.

I am struck by Sack's language throughout, the lyrical quality with which he describes a unique home life in London during the Second World War, the chemical explorations of his boyhood (my son was especially struck by the idea of another 11-year-o...more
A very vivid and poignant account of Oliver Sacks childhood fascination and love for chemistry. He makes us all feel sad for the loss of that childlike curiosity and attachment to science. he found delight in exploring the physical world. How many of us has the abillity to do experiments on chemicals during our childhood days?How many of us dream of chemistry?How many of us delight in travelling the journey of science;asking questions and given answers to satisfy our eager curiosity? These are w...more
Anastasia Hobbet
This is a five-star jealousy rating. Oh, to have had the intellectual riches of Oliver Sacks' childhood. It's not possible anymore, even if you have equally intelligent, indulgent, slightly disconnected parents, who let him do what he wished, when he wished, how he wished--allowing him, over years, to play in an under-the-stairs chemistry lab, where he nearly blew himself and the house sky-high many times. Safety glasses? Fire protection? Concerns about poisonous fumes? Never mind! And how pale...more
Katya Epstein
I had a very strong personal reaction to this book (Sacks reminds me very much of my late father), so it's hard for me to judge whether it's a good book in any objective sense. It is not a standard memoir, in that you don't learn very much about Sacks' life or family outside of his explorations of chemistry. This can be frustrating. For instance, at one point he describes how as a teenager his brother Michael suffered from paranoid delusions (was he schizophrenic?), but then never goes on to say...more
Nov 25, 2011 Curtiss rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
This is the very personal memoir of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who is known as the author of numerous anecdotal stories involving case-studies of his patients' neurological disorders.

As a young boy he experienced a profound excitment over the study of chemistry, which helped him cope with his own neuroses which had their origins in the brutal treatment he and his brother Michael received at a boys' school that they attended during the early years of World War II.

This was a period which Oliver considered...more
Kimberly Lightle
As a kid I really liked my chemistry set - maybe that is why I grew up to teach high school chemistry. I'm also a really good cook. The stories in this book really spoke to me - the relationship of the author and his uncle and that science is really cool!
This is an odd book--part autobiography, part history of chemistry. Sacks, a neurologist who writes beautifully about unusual people. In doing so he always reminds me not only of our common humanity, but of just how strange and wonderful our humanity is. In this book he is the subject of his narrative and he manages to depict himself with the same grace and wit that uses to characterize others. The heart of the book is his experience being evacuated Along with many other children from London dur...more
Steve Smits
I enjoy Oliver Sack's works. For one who is such an accomplished scientific figure in the medical world, his prose writing is so good. "Uncle Tungsten", published first in 2001, is his memoir of his life and times in pre and immediately post war England. Sack's family were Jews who had immigrated to England around the turn of the 20th century. His parents were physicians and his uncles (he came from quite a large family) were scientists and entrepreneurs. Uncle "Tungsten" owned and ran a factory...more
Fred Jacobson
I went on a mini-Sacks "bender" this year, reading Uncle Tugsten, Musicophilia, and then dipping into one of his earlier books (An Anthropologist on Mars). What I have always loved about Sacks is his ability to present the scientific, social, personal and emotional aspects of his subject as a balanced entity. You can see, through his writings, how he develops a rapport with his patients.
Uncle Tungsten is a memoir of Sacks, growing up in Britain under the Blitz, a child of a remarkable family. P...more
This book was great because you can really sense the boyhood excitement, and you pick up a lot of little chemistry trivia (which I, as a chemist, especially appreciate). I don't think it's too technical, however, and I hope its chemistry content does not deter non-chemists of any type from reading it.

While reading, I was frequently reminded that the world has changed significantly in the past ~60 years. Oliver Sacks grew up in a time where you could essentially run down to the store and buy som...more
I enjoyed this considerably more than The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, which partly just reflects my relative levels of interest in chemistry and neuroscience, but also reflects the way this book interleaves scientific and wartime memoir -- the Second World War being a topic which interests me more than either of the above, at least from a pleasure-reading point of view. (Plus, I learned a few more obnoxious chemistry trivia facts, the better to torment family and friends.)
This is a memoir of a brilliant man's curious evolution as an inquiring mind. His family is super-brainy and it's no wonder that he is too, since they gave him his own chemistry-lab at age 10 to start blowing shit up. This book is also a superb primer for anyone interested in the history of chemistry, from alchemy to the most recent discoveries.
I really enjoyed this autobiography. Sacks is such an engaging writer. I got to go listen to him speak a few years ago at Mayo - he was just as delightful in person as in print.
I liked this book in spite of the fact that I am not too educated about chemistry and the elements - just the basic high school classes I took. There were lots of parts that I skimmed over - just too much detailed science for me. But I learned so many new things about the discovery of the elements and about so many scientists that laid the groundwork for what we know as the periodical table of elements. I also gained an appreciation for the order in the universe and marveled at the patterns foun...more
Hm. I do believe some people would love this. I'd have loved more personal memoir - after all, Sacks is known for giving us every last detail of his patients' lives, inner and outer, so more of his own childhood would have been good. And more about his family. And, in the science parts, more about the actual science, enough clarity so I could actually understand. In my own personal opinion, Sacks did what has been proven popular for so many writers of historical science, that is, he shared with...more
Oliver Sacks has such an engaging style of writing! He is clearly very intelligent and absolutely fascinated with the world. This book focuses on the early years of his childhood and the influence of his relatives, who were primarily in the science and medical fields. He grew up in England during WWII and was deeply affected by his experiences due to the war. Most of the chapters focus on Chemistry and his obsession with investigating the world around him -- doing his own experiments, visiting h...more
Ornella Riquelme
The story that the Oliver Sacks begins in the 1930’s, before World War II. He tell us about his childhood and his curiosity in science, specifically, chemicals. He explains how since he was a child he was interested in, metals and their properties. For example, when he was little he would ask his mom about chemicals, and sometimes his mom wouldn't know how to answer it, but his uncle will answer the questions. His uncle was known as Uncle Tungsten, and it was because he form lightbulb out of tun...more
Kressel Housman
Several GR friends recommended The Disappearing Spoon as a narrative approach to chemistry for the science-challenged like myself. I thought Dr. Sacks' memoir might be the same. Unfortunately, I think I should have read The Disappearing Spoon first because I did not have the background for this memoir. It's one thing to push myself through the dull sections of a history book, but with science, I might as well be reading a foreign language. That's not to say I got nothing out of the book, but I c...more
Wonderfully inspiring, even more so because the book revolves around the great love of mine - chemistry.
Through his memories of childhood/adolescence Oliver Sacks tells the simplified (short?) version of the history of chemistry. I've come to realize that his "reasons" for chemical curiosity are rather similar to my own - to find certainty in this world, to understand the origins and reactions of things all around me, and so I was not enthralled to read the last chapter, "The End of the Affair",...more
For those you enjoy well written autobiographies, this will not fail to disappoint. If you have studied chemistry and/or the history of scientific discovery, you will be more well-placed to understand the scientific language in the book. If not, it is still a very good read. You may also need to be a fan of footnotes to enjoy this book, as some pages are more footnotes than writing. However you look at it, the tale of this man's upbringing, his fascination with science, with the unknown and his...more
Tim Weakley
I think this is the most personal of Sacks' books. The premise is an autobiographic one. It's the story of his boyhood during wartime Britain, and his experiences with both his multi-talented family, and his youthful love of science and chemistry. It also becomes woven in with the history of chemistry and the periodic table. I love history of science books, and biography so to get both in one book was a surprise and a treat! It made me think of the best works by John Gribbin that I had read many...more
S.M. Johnson
This book was just as great on my second readthrough as it was on my first. Sacks has the rare talent to combine science, art, and humanity, and the result is a beautifully written account of both his childhood and the early science of chemistry and the people that were involved. These days it's easy for us to take things like the modern-day conception of a quantum atom for granted, but this book brings you back to a time when this was an amazing discovery and, more than that, tells you exactly...more
Simon Kissam
I give this three stars, but it really deserves four stars, and anyone interested in the subject will probably rate it so, or even five stars. However, if one (like me) comes to this book as a result of liking Sacks' other books about neurology, may find this one less interesting. That isn't to say I didn't like the book, the writing is excellent and Sacks does a good job of intertwining his boyhood alongside going into detailed explanations of chemical experiments he did as a kid and the histor...more
Oliver Ho
Heartfelt memoir that traces the development of modern science alongside the author's childhood and youth. It's fascinating, especially in light of his other work, but some of the rapturous chapters and descriptions of the joys of chemistry were beyond me. Interesting too how the chapters seemed to shorten and speed up as the book progressed. Lots of great details, insights and observations about his early life, as well as a useful primer on the history of science.
Oct 17, 2007 Åke rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who thought chemistry was boring
Shelves: mybooks
After barely managing a passing grade in Chemistry (senior high school), I was convinced chemistry was an utterly boring subject that I wouldn't ever find any interest in...ever! However after reading this book I find that I was wrong, chemistry has a fascinating history and is in its own a fascinating subject.

This book is not only about chemistry, it's history and applications, but also about a boy growing up during the second world war.
May 22, 2007 Sarah rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who loved chemistry in high school, but has never gone back since
This book is a great, unique memoir of Sacks' love of chemistry and science in general, with really accessible explanations of the chemistry that so fascinated him. If I could, I'd give this book a 3.5 - because just when I wanted more information about Sacks, his life, and his chemical inspirations, I would get more technical chemistry or chemistry history.
This lovely little memoir tells the story of Oliver Sacks' childhood interest in chemistry. Born into a family of doctors, scientists, and businessmen, Sacks (who grew up to be a very famous neurologist) describes his experiments with various chemicals, the growth of his scientific understanding, and his family life as well. My favorite parts of the book were reading about his ebullient fascination with chemistry and how excited he got when he followed in the footsteps of the great scientists of...more
Sacks parallels his childhood autobiography with anecdotes from the history of science as they piqued his interest as a young boy. He tells of a family full of brilliant medical and scientific minds and how his parents, aunts, and uncles knowingly fanned the fires of his curiosity.

The experiments he was performing in his home laboratory at age 11 would make any school district's liability counsel cringe. When I was 11 I boiled a copper sulfate solution and stained my forehead. When Sacks was 11...more
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Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE (born July 9, 1933, London), is a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Sacks was the youngest of four children born to a prosperous North London Jewish couple: Sam, a physician, and E...more
More about Oliver Sacks...
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales Hallucinations Awakenings

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