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UNCLE TUNGSTEN by Oliver Sacks Kirkus Star


Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-40448-1
Publisher: Knopf

Artful, impassioned memoir of a youth spent lost in the blinding light of chemistry from neurologist/essayist Sacks (The Island of the Colorblind, 1998, etc.).

He grew up in wartime England in a sizeable extended intellectual family: doctors, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and general polymaths. Early on an uncle introduced Oliver to the thrall of metals, and he came to know gold, silver, copper, tungsten, and so many others as a child knows an attic or a woodlot, by taste and smell and quirk: the cry of tin as it bends, the nobility of iridium, radium’s “ultimate, fatal red.” He became a familiar of their gleam and slick, heft and chroma, and especially their inviolacy, for his was a precarious world—if he wasn’t having bombs dropped on his head in London, he was being savagely beaten at boarding school—and he found security and relief in the stability of metals. In a kind and gracious voice, Sacks guides readers on his journey of passionate discovery into the romance of chemistry. He depicts the discipline as a detailed, naturalistic, and descriptive science, a 19th-century one, but make no mistake about it, lots of pure science marches through these pages—accompanied, thankfully, by its ability to spark wonder and delight. Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier are introduced, as are Humphry Davy and his alkaline earth metals, John Dalton and his atomic theory, the wild and extravagant Dmitry Mendeleev, whose periodic table sends Sacks reeling with an appreciation of the mind’s ability to decipher the “superarching principle uniting and relating all the elements.” Sacks always has an eye skinned for the evocative and poignant in this history of family and science, from his brother’s madness to the intensity of limelight to the intoxication of radioactivity, not to mention his own decaying orbit under the spell of chemistry.

The realm of science is alchemy in Sacks’s hands as he spins pure gold from base metals. (24 drawings, 4 pages of photos)