Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks | Science |
ISBN: 0676975372 Global Overview for this book
Registered by wingGoryDetailswing of Nashua, New Hampshire USA on 2/20/2015
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4 journalers for this copy...
Journal Entry 1 by wingGoryDetailswing from Nashua, New Hampshire USA on Friday, February 20, 2015
I found this fair-condition trade paperback at a local Savers thrift store, and nabbed it for another release copy. [I've enjoyed many of Sacks' other books, including Anthropologist on Mars and Oaxaca Journal.]

I wondered whether this would be more biographical than scientific, but I needn't have worried; Sacks mixes family history with scientific discoveries, and shifts from his own early experiments (he opens the book by describing his fascination with metals) to anecdotes about the discovery of different chemicals, and of the periodic table itself. I enjoy his writing style, descriptive and chatty, whether he's talking about his difficult times at the boarding school he was sent to during the war years (it sounds like one of Dickens' more nightmarish schools) or about the joys of chemical experiments (some of which included explosions!).

He mentions his love of The Jungle Book, one of my early (and still!) favorites; of his love of mathematics (he mentions that the scene in 1984 when Winston is forced to deny that 2+2=4 struck him as the most nightmarish thing he'd ever read); and, yes, of his uncle Dave, aka "Uncle Tungsten", whose work with the element led young Oliver into his explorations of metals.

In these safety-conscious (and litigation-sensitive) days, it's hard to imagine anyone allowing a child free reign with a variety of chemicals the way Sacks describes; he mentions himself how modern-day chemistry sets tend to exclude all the really fun chemicals {grin}. I was also impressed by the amount of experimenting he did; he was performing tests and experiments that I'd have found challenging in college, and doing most of it in his own little corner of the house. And he casually mentions things like taking his pocket spectroscope to Piccadilly Circus so he could look at the new street lighting (sodium) and advertising (neon) to see the signature of each type of gas. (This made me rather ashamed that, for all my own reading and curiosity, it never occurred to me to attempt such things myself!)

There's comedy here (at one point, young Oliver mistook X-rays of the family boxer for those of his new nephew, and assumed with hysterical grief that the baby was deformed; his mother roared with laughter before setting him right), tragedy personal and historical, and a delighted overview of the discovery of many elements and the classification into the periodic table (which Sacks describes as altering his life - he found the table a true key to the universe).

I enjoyed this book so much that I marked dozens of passages I wanted to cite - a good sign re the book, but it makes it difficult to edit it into a reasonably short review! I did want to mention the Curie incident, though, as it typifies the author and the book. Sacks mentions that his mother gave him a copy of Eve Curie's biography of her mother to him when he was ten (I love his family so much!), and it fascinated him. And he adds in a footnote that he mentioned his love of this book while speaking in 1998 at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium - and a very old woman in the audience smiled and introduced herself; Eve Curie then signed the book for him!

Journal Entry 2 by wingGoryDetailswing at Nashua, New Hampshire USA on Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Released 3 yrs ago (3/3/2015 UTC) at Nashua, New Hampshire USA

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I'm sending this to BCer Firegirl in Virginia, as a RABCK from the US/Canada Wishlist Tag game. Enjoy!

*** Released as part of the 2015 Oh the Places We Can Go challenge, for Tungsten Lake. ***

*** Released as part of the 2015 4 Elements challenge. ***

Journal Entry 3 by wingFiregirlwing at Annandale, Virginia USA on Thursday, March 12, 2015
Oh, yay!! What a wonderful surprise; thanks GD! Do let me know if there's anything I can send in return. And hopefully I'll get up your way soon so we can meet up. I should be a touch easier now that we're on the same coast!

Journal Entry 4 by wingFiregirlwing at Annandale, Virginia USA on Sunday, August 30, 2015
I enjoyed this. I read the first third of it while at jury duty in the assembly room, and I learned a lot. The rest I read mostly before bed, and some of the science went over my head. Part of my enjoyment, though, came from not *having* to understand it all. I could be a little confused and carry on, not worrying about being tested on the material or anything, and just enjoyed the obvious love Sacks had for science.

It was quite a privileged childhood he had, with financially secure parents who allowed him to experiment so much; let me him have his own lab, in fact. Also, with the availabiliy of dangerous chemicals and reagents, he had quite the opportunity to experiment and learn. With all the advances Sacks wound up making in the scientific world, we are all definitely better off for his having had such a "chemical boyhood".

Oliver Sacks died today, August 30th, 2015, of cancer. His death is more impactful to me for having so recently finished this. Thank you, sir, for all you gave us.

Journal Entry 5 by wingFiregirlwing at Alexandria, Virginia USA on Monday, September 26, 2016

Released 2 yrs ago (9/26/2016 UTC) at Alexandria, Virginia USA

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Sending out at part of a VBB. Counts for the "Keep Them Moving" release challenge. Enjoy!

Journal Entry 6 by wingbooklady331wing at Cape Coral, Florida USA on Friday, September 30, 2016
Thank you for sharing this book with me.

Journal Entry 7 by wingbooklady331wing at Cape Coral, Florida USA on Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Picked up the book tonight to begin reading

Journal Entry 8 by wingbooklady331wing at Cape Coral, Florida USA on Saturday, November 04, 2017
The high points are when Sacks is describing the life style in England, especially before WW2. Most people will relate to his family descriptions. The prolonged description of chemical properties gets tedious quickly. I especially enjoyed this quote near the end of the book by Sacks’ aunt because it may this none math person think. His aunt said, “God thinks in numbers. Numbers are the way the world is put together.”
Another quote that got me thinking is, “Divine mathematics with which one could create the richest possible reality by the most economical means, and this, it now seemed to me, was everywhere apparent: in the beautiful economy by which millions of compounds could be made from a few dozen elements, and the hundred-odd elements from hydrogen itself; the economy by which the whole range of atoms was composed from two or three particles; and in the way that their stability and identify were guaranteed by the quantal numbers of the atom itself—all this was beautiful enough to be the work of God.” [page 308]

Journal Entry 9 by wingbooklady331wing at Cape Coral, Florida USA on Sunday, February 04, 2018

Released 1 yr ago (2/4/2018 UTC) at Cape Coral, Florida USA

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Enjoy! KTM RABCK for Non-fiction VBB

Journal Entry 10 by elizardbreath at Bella Vista, Arkansas USA on Thursday, February 15, 2018
Thanks so much for sending this my way!

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