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Uncle Tungsten Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver W. Sacks

  • ISBN: 9780375404481
  • ISBN10: 0375404481

Uncle Tungsten Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver W. Sacks

  • List Price: $25.00
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Edition: 1
  • Publisher: Random House Inc
  • Publish date: 10/01/2001
  • ISBN: 9780375404481
  • ISBN10: 0375404481
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Description: Uncle Tungsten tells the story of Oliver Sacks's childhood -- a childhood at once familiar and strange, horrific and magical.

Sacks was fascinated early on by metals. They were irresistible to all his senses -- their gleam, their touch, their weight, their sounds when struck; they had a magnetic appeal, and aroused his curiosity. How could a diamond be so cold when pressed against one's lips and yet conduct heat so well? When zinc was bent, why did it utter a special cry? Both his parents were doctors -- and his mother's family in particular (she was the youngest of 18) consisted of doctors, metallurgists, industrialists, all fascinated by the phenomena of the natural world -- so there were many, many relatives to whom Oliver could turn to slake his curiosity.

But this all came to an end in 1939, when he was six and war broke out. He was exiled to a boarding school that rivaled the grimmest of Dickens's: a steady diet of giant turnips and huge, coarse beetroots, a vicious and sadistic headmaster unhinged by his own power, compounded by Sacks's own uncomfortable and desolate sense of being abandoned (in 4 years there would be only one trip home to London).

When finally he returned to London in 1943, he was a ten-year-old boy, at a loss as to what to believe, withdrawn, uncared for, sustained only by the secret gardens of his passions: for numbers, for metals, and increasingly for the chemicals that he began to analyze. He tried to figure out how the most mundane of appliances -- batteries, lightbulbs, electrical charges -- work, thus beginning his first great scientific journey, into the history of chemistry. He discovered his first great scientific heroes: Lavoisier, who firstdefined oxygen, the great romantist/ scientist Humphrey Davy, whose methods of electrolysis allowed chemists to properly identify new elements, and the great visionary Dmitri Mendelev who conceived the periodic table -- men whose gift for understanding the hidden order of things, for disclosing the visible forces that sustain and support the tangible world was akin to genius. Sacks's account of his younger self is a quest for understanding, for stability, both chemical and psychological, for the solace of order; it radiates warmth, humor, wit, and the unquenchable delight and intensity of first passion.

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