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Uncle Tungsten

(Oliver Sacks' memoirs #1)

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  5,755 ratings  ·  612 reviews
In Uncle Tungsten Sacks evokes, with warmth and wit, his upbringing in wartime England. He tells of the large science-steeped family who fostered his early fascination with chemistry. There follow his years at boarding school where, though unhappy, he developed the intellectual curiosity that would shape his later life. And we hear of his return to London, an emotionally b ...more
Paperback, 337 pages
Published August 23rd 2002 by Picador (first published 2001)
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Andrew You will learn some science, certainly. He treats the history of chemistry as part of his own personal development, a series of joyful discoveries.

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Average rating 3.98  · 
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 ·  5,755 ratings  ·  612 reviews

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Dec 21, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 01, 2008 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
Anastasia Hobbet
Feb 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
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
Sep 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) grew up in North London surrounded by scientific aunts and uncles. Both his parents were physicians. His mother was a well-known obstetrician and one of England’s first female surgeons. His brothers also went on to become physicians, as did Oliver.

Oliver’s Uncle ‘Tungsten’ Dave owned a light bulb factory on Farringdon Road. Uncle Dave helped Oliver with experiments in the laboratory and taught him about all the elements. Oliver was fascinated with Tungsten and its proper
Dec 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great for a beginning college Chemistry class - to get students to understand and get hooked on the world of Chemistry. I learned a great deal. At times a little dry, but not for long amounts of time, and the pay off is worth it.
Debbie Zapata
Jun 03, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dar
Mother ordered this book some time ago and wanted me to read it. While I was very interested in all the parts that spoke directly about the author's life and family, I could not maintain that interest for all the other (and much longer) parts telling the history of various elements, details and more details about chemical properties of many things, and biographical sketches about various scientists. I began looking for paragraphs that contained "I" and skimming the rest. I thought the author was ...more
Jun 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 excitement 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
Apr 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
Great fun romping inside the mind of Oliver Sacks as he reminisces of childhood days. Insightful, funny, sometimes somber, sometimes lighthearted, always engaging. What strikes me as its most important quality is that it bears a restorative effect on those minds seeking to explain their own childhoods.

A great story-teller, of course, and he has produced a well-crafted literary work.

Everything that I would write would be a spoiler, of course, because it is a memoir so I'm just adding my voice to
Fred Jacobson
Jun 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 09, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Oct 31, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: english, biography, shelf
Really a combination of the history of chemistry and the story of the early life of the author. It can be argued that the chemistry is part of the biography since, as a child, it was the most important interest of the author. A bit boring if you know some chemistry and a tad superficial to my taste on the biography part. Still, fun to read.
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
Jul 07, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2007, own
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.) ...more
Jul 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
This is Sacks' inspiring memoir of his early teenage years, when his growing scientific mind recapitulated the history of chemistry through reading and his own hands-on experiments. It can be read either as a record of one person's education, or as a high-level history of chemistry. The magic of this book is how Sacks combined the two into an engaging narrative.

He begins by telling of his earliest observations, when not yet ten years old, of simple material categories. This grew into differentia
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! ...more
This is Sacks at his best! What a nice way to learn something about the history of science. Every Chemistry student (and teacher) should read it.
Apr 08, 2019 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography-memoir
DNF for now at chapter 17 63%
A nice book when he's talking about his own experiences, but it slows down when he switches to the histories of famous chemists and discoveries (sort of relating them to how and what he learned). I may come back to it, but it's not stimulating enough for me right now. Sorry Mr. Sacks - it's not you. It's me.
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
Jan 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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",
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
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Feb 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Lyn Elliott
Aug 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this memoir of the young Oliver, able to explore 'what happens if...' in his home laboratory and the natural world around him. Here you see the brilliant family that produced the extraordinary man Sacks became. ...more
Feb 10, 2009 rated it it was ok
Many interesting passages, but far too scientific for me. I was lost among the tables and metals. I liked it best when he became more personal in discussing his family and upbringing.
Mar 26, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Ryan Lally
Uncle Tungsten is an autobiographical account of Oliver Sacks' childhood, yet in parts, it also reads like a young boy's open love letter to Science; affectionately named after Sacks’ uncle (due to his lifelong obsession with metals, in particular, tungsten, whose filaments he used daily in the manufacturing of incandescent light bulbs). Born in Cricklewood, London, the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents (both physicians), his early memories of growing up are punctuated by reverber ...more
Gina Johnson
Aug 20, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book so much!!! Before I talk about why I liked it I want to give a few heads up about some not so pleasant things. Near the beginning of the book the author is sent to the country to a newly established school because of the bombings in London (during the war) and the way he talks about it and about his feelings toward his parents because of it and things like that felt very much like he should have been talking to a therapist and not writing it in a book (even if it is a memoir) ...more
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Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was 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 Elsie, a surgeon. When he wa

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Oliver Sacks' memoirs (2 books)
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