Uncle Tungsten

Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

I was about halfway through reading On the Move by Oliver Sacks when I realized it was his second memoir. I wanted to understand more of where he was coming from, as he hinted at some incidents from early years that seemed significant so I put pause on that book and read this one.

Uncle Tungsten is about his early life in London during the 1940’s (the book ends when he’s about fifteen). He was from a very large and intellectual family- his parents were both surgeons, he had an uncle who owned and ran a lightbulb factory (thus the title) and many others involved in the sciences or entreprenuership. It was lovely reading how avidly older family members would explain scientific phenomena to him as a young boy. Incredible to read about the lab he eventually set up in a back room, where he did all sorts of experiments re-enacting what famed scientists had done- as he read and learned their histories (which are recounted in plenty of detail). In fact nearly as much of the book is an explanation of chemistry and physics as it is stories of Sack’s childhood. I didn’t mind so much, as his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, but near the end when it gets more advanced I was a bit lost. I found the personal chapters much more engaging- telling how he was sent away to an awful boarding school during the war, or how the community of Jews that he lived among changed after, so many of them were lost. For the rest- it’s an enthralling account but also a rather remote one- on many pages the author seems to talk more about the chemistry he admired, than about himself. I’m glad I read this book because yes, it gives me a better understanding of the second one, and I can start to see how he became the remarkable nerologist I have so admired. I think anyone growing up in such a household, mentored and taught by so many highly skilled, critically thinking scientists and doctors, would have become a remarkable person no matter what their field of study turned out to be.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
338 pages, 2001

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