Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)
Paperback, Vintage Books, ISBN 0-375-70404-3
Hardcover, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 0-375-40448-1
A memoir of growing up in World-War-II England as part of an extraordinary scientific family.
Click image on right to enlarge.
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.
(Publishers Weekly Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.)
Dr. Sacks on Uncle Tungsten:
“I had intended, towards the end of 1997, to write a book on aging, but then found myself flying in the opposite direction, thinking of youth, and my own partly war-dominated, partly chemistry-dominated youth, in particular, and the enormous scientific family I had grown up in. No book has caused me more pain, or given me more fun, than writing Uncle T.–or, finally, such a sense of coming-to-terms with life, and reconciliation and catharsis.”
Praise for Uncle Tungsten
“Artful, impassioned memoir of a youth spent lost in the blinding light of chemistry from neurologist essayist Sacks. . . . . In a kind and gracious voice, Sacks guides readers on his journey of passionate discovery into the romance of chemistry. . . . The realm of science is alchemy in Sacks’s hands as he spins pure gold from base metals.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks weaves together the wonders of chemistry and his boyhood experiences with grace, ease, and just the right comedic touch. The result is a rich, unique, and compelling glimpse into the development of an enormously fertile and creative mind.”
– Brian Greene
“Oliver Sacks is an extraordinary soul-scientist and artist, healer and explorer-and he has given us an extraordinary memoir. Uncle Tungsten is profoundly illuminating and continually surprising.”
– James Gleick
Chosen as one of the Best Books of 2001 by the New York Times Book Review
Chosen as one of the Best Books of 2001 by the editors of Amazon.com