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Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten

'Uncle Tungsten' is a description of Sacks' life between the age of 10 and 14, when he was discovering the joys of science, interspersed with historical material about scientists who inspired him. The title of the book comes from an uncle who ran a factory making tungsten light bulb filaments, but many of the Sacks family were involved in metals in one way or another giving Oliver a ready source of answers to his questions as well as material for his chemical laboratory. The book needs no prior scientific knowledge and is recommended for all readers for its fascinating story of how Sacks developed his enthusiasm for science.

The one problem with the book is that it is written long after the fact. This is reasonable for an autobiography, but I couldn't help feeling that the historical chapters were based on later knowledge, and so they tended to break up the flow. Towards the end as Sacks moves away from physical science to medicine, he seems a bit introverted - but again I wondered if this was a later analysis of the situation.

The book illustrates how much the attitudes to safety have changed. Anything called a chemical nowadays is considered dangerous. Now when I was young I bought some nitric acid and walked home with the bottle in my pocket. Sacks managed to get a small container of hydrofluoric acid, which is definitely nasty (although he never opened it).

Amazon.com info
Hardcover 352 pages  
ISBN: 0375404481
Salesrank: 753047
Weight:1.25 lbs
Published: 2001 Knopf
Amazon price $22.26
Marketplace:New from $18.24:Used from $2.00
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Amazon.co.uk info
Paperback 337 pages  
ISBN: 0330390287
Salesrank: 430575
Weight:0.84 lbs
Published: 2010 Picador
Marketplace:New from £18.50:Used from £0.01
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Amazon.ca info
Hardcover
ISBN: 0375404481
Salesrank: 1126704
Weight:1.25 lbs
Published: 2001 Knopf
Amazon price CDN$ 171.94
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 37.51:Used from CDN$ 2.21
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Product Description
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.