Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

Hardcover, 2001




Knopf (2001)


"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 "When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life.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 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

Media reviews

Romantic chemistry sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the two words pair naturally in this book.
2 more
New York Times
When Mr. Sacks departs from the narrative of his childhood to serve up lengthy digressions on the finer points of rare earth metals or electromagnetic reactions, his writing can lapse into textbook lecturing, but even these dense, scientific passages are enlivened by his boyish wonder at the amazing logic and strangeness of the world.
Thus this is both the story of a particular English boy's life just before, during, and after World War II and a maximally engaging, personalized overview of chemistry, from Robert Boyle to Madame Curie.

User reviews

LibraryThing member snash
In some ways the book seemed schizophrenic in that it was a memoir but also a biography of a family, and a history of chemists and chemistry. The memoir was frightening, cruel at times. The family biography was enchanting. The history of chemists and chemistry was infused with boundless enthusiasm but would still be inaccessible to anyone with less that college chemistry. I have a chemistry degree so I quite enjoyed the book despite its divided focus.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pferdina
Sacks writes about his boyhood in 1940s London and also about the lives of the scientists that shaped his interest in chemistry and physics. Sketches on radioactivity, the discovery of the periodic law, metals, electricity, and atomic structure are included as well as stories about Humphrey Davy, Marie and Pierre Curie, and several others. My only complaint about this book is that it moves very slowly and all of the events in the author's life take place when he was very young (before 13 years of age, for the most part).… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
A funny tale of one inquisitive Jewish boy's adventurous--and often dangerous--experiments in the world of chemistry and the many mentors who inspired him on his journey. Informative, entertaining, and well-written...his passion for his topic resonates throughout the entire book. A definite recommend.
LibraryThing member JBD1
There's a "Radiolab" episode in which Oliver Sacks talks about his interest in samples of chemical elements; this is basically a longer and even more wonderful version of that, in which he ties in family history, personal memoir, and the history of chemistry (and a bit of physics too). A delight to read.
LibraryThing member TadAD
This is a memoir of the author's early boyhood when he was fascinated by chemistry. I was expecting the majority of the book to be about the many intelligent and probably interesting members of the Sacks' family, most notably his Uncle Dave (Uncle Tungsten). However, the personal glimpses were few and lacked much depth. Instead, this was primarily a quick recapitulation of the history of chemical thought. For this, I was just the wrong audience.

When told that Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen, that Mendeleev devised the periodic table, etc., instead of a quickening of interest, my response was continuously, "Yes, I know."

If you didn't take (or have largely forgotten) high school chemistry, and have some interest in science, then this book will provide you with a recounting of chemical thought from earliest times up through Niels Bohr's quantum theories about electrons. It's well-written and very accessible. If you do remember your high school chemistry, the book will probably disappoint a bit.
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LibraryThing member JNSelko
A perfectly marvelous memoir- my daughter ( a Chemical Engineer) has read it three times!
LibraryThing member lovell
This is a book that holds the attention for its woonderful fresh insights into the world of chemistry, as well as a description of the author's family and life in an extended medical scientifically literate Jewish family in London during the war years. I give it to my year 11 chem students (a chapter at a time) as it has a beguiling introduction to the importance of chemistry in our lives.… (more)
LibraryThing member iayork
Memory is Precious: I loved reading this book for multiple reasons, but I will restrict myself to mentioning two. The first is that it is a well constructed story with excellent writing---a combination I cannot resist. The narrative moves at a pace to engage and captivate the reader without making the story just a rush to get to the next page. Writing that is thoughtful makes sure that the reader will savor and think about the events presented. This is worth a read merely to have the understanding of one more perspective presented well.

But there is more to the book that makes me give this an enthusiastic five stars. As a chemist I was delighted to read a book that gave insight into this space of history of the chemistry profession. The history is two-fold: first it is a history of childhood enthusiasm for science and second it is a history of chemistry in the middle of the 1900s. many a child is enthusiastic about something. For all those children who loved science but never had the means to explore this book will bring sadness at what they lost for not being given such freedom and support. But the book also brings joy at reading that someone, somewhere had the chance to be the brilliant child you always thought you were. Today we highly restrict certain chemicals and also have an emphasis on safety in working with all chemicals. Sacks presents a time period when chemistry and science in general was done with little concern for safety. Instead of glossing over things Sacks presents information and experiments without deluding the reading into thinking it was perfectly safe.

This book is an excellent exploration of multiple themes that are well worth thinking about. I challenge anyone to read it and not find something in it that doesn't provoke some thoughts about what you are doing now with what you are enthusiastic about or what you loved childhood and now have lost as an adult.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
After reading this book, I'm still not sure if it was intended as a memoire, or as a brief history of chemistry. The author gives us glimpses of his family life, especially the role his mother and uncles played in encouraging his love of chemistry. He spends a lot more time talking about chemistry and scientific discoveries, which was less interesting to me.

I found the book rather sad at the end. All the love of chemistry that permeated Oliver Sacks' life was repressed when he reading adolescence as it was expected he would become a doctor. Which he did -- and where he has made a large difference to many lives. But what would have happened had he followed his heart?
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LibraryThing member triptropic
A bit like being back in chemistry class. Sometimes fun, sometimes as dull as ditch water. Enough with the thalium already!
LibraryThing member mjmorrison1971
A childhood memoir & journey throught the history of Chemistry. For me, a very interesting read but how much of what he did as a child can we do now? - Not much
LibraryThing member MarkKeeffe
Really good insight into what t was like growing up in a large well-off Jewish family in London around the time of the second world war. His enthusiasm for chemistry and botany, and for learning in general, is contagious and delightful. His memory for detail and the influencing characters is amazing. Some of the chemical terms and descriptions re hard to understand which got a bit boring towards the end of the book. Also it seemed to end rather abruptly. But these small criticisms are dwarfed by an otherwise delightful read.… (more)
LibraryThing member brewergirl
A fascinating book. The author's passion about science and chemistry in particular was very compelling. I love it when an author can get me interested in something I don't normally care for.
LibraryThing member goluban
An amazing look into the mind of a child who would become a great scientist.

His early fascination with chemistry was based on his attraction to the physical properties of materials he saw as solid, permanent in contrast to the chaotic and unreliable social world of WWII.

This early interest was encouraged and nourished by a large nurturing family of equally extraordinary, intellectually curious people.

It is a vivid example of the interplay of nature and nurture.
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LibraryThing member gibbon
The book contains more about tungsten than it does about his uncle, and might have been better if the proportions had been reversed. Anyone without the elements of a scientific education may find it hard and consequently boring to follow, being structured as it is round the history of chemistry and the discovery and classification of the elements. It is interesting to compare it with the anecdotes of Richard Feynman concerning his upbringing. Feynman was older and from a less privileged family, so he felt the impact of the Great Depression more as he was growing up. But it is clear that both men felt the same compulsive need to discover for themselves how things worked, and the same joy when they realised what they had understood - in Sacks' case, with the help of his talented uncles, in Feynman's, by talks with his father, and for both of them, by the freedom to experiment. It was unfortunate for Sacks that his boarding schools were a bad influence on him, and that his parents didn't realise it, being preoccupied with their own careers.… (more)
LibraryThing member ogroft
Its not everyday that someone is born who grows up with a natural love for the periodic table and especially metals. I have not read this, but am interested to and I think it could give a little more insight to how important the table of elements is.
LibraryThing member clothingoptional
An ancient magic draws all little boys to fire. They sit and stare at smoldering campfires, delighting when flames stir with the breeze. Sometimes, they stand in reverent silence before a book of matches or a cigarette lighter, but more often they are overcome with an irresistible urge to spark and burn.

We know a little boy like this. At the tender age of five, enamored with fire, the boy believed he could make a rocket. He took a four foot length of copper pipe into his backyard, and rammed it into the earth beneath the cavernous shade of a decrepit willow. Into this vessel, he poured a fair amount of gasoline, some measure of other dangerous chemicals, and added a good dose of industrial petroleum jelly. One can readily guess the attitude of his mother when he went inside the house to ask where the family kept the matches.

Despite this early setback, the boy went on with his experiments, such as they were. He was limited by his lack of chemical guidance, and by a stock of materials that consisted of whatever he could scrounge from the garage or the basement. He never did anything important and never learned much of anything except what would and what would not readily burned. This was the extent of his explorations.

As he proceeded through science classes in school, he found he had a great aptitude for chemistry. He easily grasped the principles of organic chemistry when other classmates struggled. The entire concept of a chemical bond seemed so obvious to him as to be second nature. Yet, there was something amiss with our young man's process into the world of science. While he loved to learn the laws and the measure of things, the way certain elements combined while others would not, and how one might tear apart these materials with surprising ease, he sensed a gap in his knowledge. He was learning only the data and theory, but nothing of the process. He had no understanding whatsoever of how all of this knowledge came to be, even less how he seemed to know without knowing all that his teachers would tell.

It wasn't until much later in life, when the boy had left the field of chemistry behind and turned his interests elsewhere, that he discovered what he was missing all those years ago. What he was missing was history. In history, he found the stories of men and women, driven to light fires in the darkness, probing their way through a murky world of an evolving field of thought. There, he found context.

Without context, one is highly unlikely to discover anything new, unless entirely by accident and then it is doubtful that one would recognize the new phenomenon when it was found. In the study of history, one will find examples of just this sort of miraculous tinkering. One will also discover how, with just a slight change in this method or another, a crackpot suddenly becomes a genius.

Unlike the boy in our story, Dr. Oliver Sacks had the benefit of growing up in a scientific family. He had aunts and uncles and parents who were practicing doctors and scientists. All of these sources turned the young Oliver on to the history of science, a history which our boy was so sadly ignorant. Through young Oliver's eyes, we recognized how basic knowledge and the ready availability of materials, combined with practical experience to drive a boy to experiment. However, it was the exposure to history, Dr. Sacks's love of the lives of the scientists who had come before him, that enabled the boy to move from mere mimicry to mastery.

Or at least this is what we're led to believe.

Dr. Sacks does such a wonderful job of introducing history only when the reader {and the boy who is his memory} is prepared to receive it, that we wonder if reality matches the perfect and structured way his education seemed to present itself. Still, even if the truth is a picture of fits and starts, we hardly mind. The book was a pleasure to read, and ought to be required reading for all students of science. Not only will they come away with a better understanding of the facts, but context both the history and a connection with the author's experience will fuel their curiosity.

As we read, we kept finding ourselves referring to the periodic table of elements included in the book. We mused on the possibility of setting up a lab of our own, playing at the experiments. When we caught ourselves in the midst of seriously considering the construction of a Leyden jar, we laughed and wondered how we could feel like such little children again, caught up in the love of science so that we might do such things if only because they could be done.

We are greatly indebted to Dr. Sacks for writing this book, and sharing his personal {and often painful} history. The boy who built the rocket in his backyard would have recognized young Oliver's retreat into the solitary. Perhaps, if he'd had the same advantages, he too might have discovered some comfort in the shelter of science. For us, it was rejuvenating to muse again not just how a fire burns, but why.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
I was finally impelled to read "Uncle Tungsten", which had been recommended by innumerable chemist friends, because of the opportunity to meet the author at the ACS meeting in New York last month. Oliver Sacks is a few years older than I am, but his "Memoir of a Chemical Boyhood" brought back my own memories of youthful chemistry experiments and fascination with the power of science. Sacks writes about wartime London, while I grew up on the US West coast, but it is remarkable how many interests, books and experiences we shared. I hope I am not the last chemist to discover this wonderful book, which describes a boyhood in science experiences that is unimaginable to a child today. Sacks is also author of "Awakenings", "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat", and "The Island of the Colorblind".… (more)
LibraryThing member amaraduende
This book took a while to digest - it's full of chemistry and nostalgia and scientific history... really enjoyable. Took me like a week to read though!
LibraryThing member lxydis
Wonderfully engaging memoir. Sacks’s conveys with deceptive simplicity and clarity the wonders of chemistry and the excitement (and the history of the last couple of centuries, no mean feat to do this so clearly and concisely!) of scientific discovery, as well as his joyous inquisitiveness as a child and his excitement at discovering this world of science. At the same time, it’s sad to read about the abuse and isolation he and his brother endured at the school they were sent to during WW2.
Typical of his generous, positive view is that even these sad times (like his brother’s eventual mental illness, and his parents’ unawareness of his own suffering at the horrible school and their inexplicably thoughtless, even insensitive, behavior, and his own anxieties and isolation) never sound regretful or self-centeredly whiny, though he describes them forthrightly. He’s generous and direct and loving in his description of his passions, as well as his depiction of his enormously engaging, supportive and remarkable family. It’s refreshing to read a personal account that is not tortured or blaming.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
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 entrepeneurs. Uncle "Tungsten" owned and ran a factory that produced light bulbs and he was deeply knowledgeable about heavy metals that could be used as filaments in these early bulbs. In addition to Uncle Tungsten, Sacks's family members were brainy and colorful characters who are quite fun to read about.

Through Uncle (Dave) "Tungsten", Sacks's intellectual curiosity in chemistry was aroused. (Mathematics was also an obsession.) At an early age, he acquired all manner of chemicals and set up his own laboratory where he conducted experiments to understand better the chemical properties of various elements and compounds. One amazing aspect of the story is how easy it was for Sacks to acquire chemicals that are quite dangerous and how tolerant his parents were of the goings-on in his lab in an attached shed. One cannot imagine such liberality or forbearance today.

In many ways, Sacks's memoir gives the history of chemistry advances in the 19th and 20th century. He describes the breakthrough work of many of the icons of early chemistry -- Boyle, Lavoisier, Davy, Faraday, Mendeleev and others. His burning impulse to understand how the physical world was constructed and interacted is plain to see and marked him as an unusual young person of great intellectual potential.

What's perhaps even more compelling in Sacks's story is his depiction of life before and during the war. Sacks, born in 1933, was shipped off to boarding schools away from London during the Blitz and his memories (many were not happy ones) give a fascinating view of life during this time. His family was closely connected to the Jewish community in London and his stories about this culture are interesting and evocative; he says that this tight knit society ceased to be after the war.

His path through the world of chemistry progresses through increasing levels of complexity. Some of his descriptions of chemical laws and processes are above my understanding; they made me aware of how much about chemistry I have forgotten, or, more likely, never knew. When he reached atomic realms of the periodic table of elements and structure of atomic entities, I was quite lost. Notwithstanding, it's worth slogging through the esoteric parts of the book, if for nothing more than to gain an appreciation of this young man's remarkable intellectual focus and his passion for knowledge.
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LibraryThing member wweisser
A curious mix of wartime memoir and scientific history; intersperses the story of the author's childhood with an overview of the development of chemistry. A very quick and fun read.
LibraryThing member sgerbic
Bits of this book were terrific. All the parts about his boyhood, life at school and WWII were terrific. But I'm only giving this book 2 stars because the rest of the book were unreadable by someone like me who has no interest in chemicals, rocks or science. I'm sorry to say that it was wasted on me. I've enjoyed many others of Sack's books, even though they were highly technical, this one felt as if Sack's were writing it for his own enjoyment, and he might just have done that. More power to him.… (more)
LibraryThing member mbmackay
Autobiography of his 'chemical childhood'. Fascinating stuff, but left me feeling slightly inadequate - why was I goofing off as a 10 year old when Sacks at that age was reading Curie's bio & replicating her chemistry?
Read June 2006
LibraryThing member xtien
Sacks' autobiography with a central role for chemistry, science in general, and two uncles who are running the family business: a factory for light bulbs (hence the title: "Uncle Tungsten"). Every kid deserves a youth in which nobody gets angry at you when you try to set the house on fire.


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