Books

Uncle Tungsten

Uncle Tungsten is a book by Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks

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When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life.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

Oliver Sacks was a British-born author and neurologist. His best-known works were 1985's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and 1995's An Anthropologist on Mars, a collection of case studies of people whose brains suffered gross perception problems, who had Tourette's syndrome or had lost memories. He died in 2015 at the age of 82.

More about Oliver Sacks

Author and neurologist Oliver Sacks reflects on the very uncommon nature of his own illness. 6:51
Whether writing about his patients or his own life, Oliver Sacks had a gift for turning medicine into literature. 5:24

Author Oliver Sacks dead at 82

6 years ago
Duration 2:25
Neurologist and acclaimed author's book Awakenings was the inspiration of the Oscar-nominated film starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams 2:25
The British physician, neurologist and writer discusses his book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. 52:30

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