Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals–also by chemical reactions (the louder and smellier the better), photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In this endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded.
In Uncle Tungsten we meet Sacks’ extraordinary family, from his surgeon mother (who introduces the fourteen-year-old Oliver to the art of human dissection) and his father, a family doctor who imbues in his son an early enthusiasm for housecalls, to his “Uncle Tungsten,” whose factory produces tungsten-filament lightbulbs. We follow the young Oliver as he is exiled at the age of six to a grim, sadistic boarding school to escape the London Blitz, and later watch as he sets about passionately reliving the exploits of his chemical heroes–in his own home laboratory. Uncle Tungsten is a crystalline view of a brilliant young mind springing to life, a story of growing up which is by turns elegiac, comic, and wistful, full of the electrifying joy of discovery.
Oliver Sacks's luminous memoir charts the growth of a mind. Born in 1933 into a family of formidably intelligent London Jews, he discovered the wonders of the physical sciences early from his parents and their flock of brilliant siblings, most notably "Uncle Tungsten" (real name, Dave), who "manufactured lightbulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire." Metals were the substances that first attracted young Oliver, and his descriptions of their colors, textures, and properties are as sensuous and romantic as an art lover's rhapsodies over an Old Master. Seamlessly interwoven with his personal recollections is a masterful survey of scientific history, with emphasis on the great chemists like Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier, and Humphry Davy (Sacks's personal hero). Yet this is not a dry intellectual autobiography; his parents in particular, both doctors, are vividly sketched. His sociable father loved house calls and "was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society," while his shy mother "had an intense feeling for structure ... for her [medicine] was part of natural history and biology." For young Oliver, unhappy at the brutal boarding school he was sent to during the war, and afraid that he would become mentally ill like his older brother, chemistry was a refuge in an uncertain world. He would outgrow his passion for metals and become a neurologist, but as readers of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat know, he would never leave behind his conviction that science is a profoundly human endeavor. --Wendy Smith