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*****= An all-time favorite
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***    = Above average
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***Uncle Tungsten

Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

Reviewed June 17, 2003.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.  337 pages.

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, and the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Migraine, the first book to help me understand my headaches.

Uncle Tungsten is a fascinating book about Oliver Sacks’ childhood in a remarkable scientific family.  He was a child in London during World War II (That part of the book is quite sad, as he was sent to a nightmarish boarding school.), but he was also a child obsessed with things chemical.

In those days, you could go to the corner chemist’s shop and buy chemicals and do experiments at home.  The young Oliver set up a laboratory at home complete with a fume cupboard.  This book presents a history of chemistry as he learned it as an obsessed and fascinated boy.  It tells about the experiments he did, following in the footsteps of the founders of modern chemistry.  He manages to capture much of the wonder and delight he found in chemicals as a child, before his parents turned him away from that, toward medicine.  One wants to be sad for him, only he is a fine neurologist.  Apparently he found great delight in reviving his old love to write this book.

As full as it is of facts about chemistry, this book is by no means quick or easy reading.  Still, it’s quite fascinating, and I can’t think of a more interesting way to learn about the history of chemistry.  I’m recommending it to my son, who takes Chemistry in high school next year.  I’m sure that his class will not be able to take the playful, delighted approach to the subject that Oliver Sacks had as a precocious child.

Review of another book by Oliver Sacks:
The Mind's Eye

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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