Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood is a deeply personal book of science describing the lovely Oliver Sacks countless childhood scientific endeavors.
You should know that Uncle Tungsten is not a biography and it is not a purely scientific book.
What Uncle Tungsten is… is a very strange, beautiful, mixture of Oliver Sacks’ love affair with the sciences… starting with Oliver as a child and working forward.
You’ll hear and learn of so much from this book that it’s kind of crazy… we go from personal stories of Oliver’s schooling and his aunts throwing cigarette butts at the fireplace to stories of chemistry projects gone wrong and going with his doctor of a father on his home visits. It’s nonstop… a nonstop deluge of stories and facts and small bursts of emotions.
The thing is, Oliver Sacks is so thorough with his writing of everything to do with science in this book that it takes on a more scientific character than what you’d normally expect for somebody writing about their life and how their love of science began. But that’s Oliver Sacks for you… always so ready to dive deep deep into the minutiae of scientific fact instead of worshiping himself as some people would tend to do in a book about themselves. But anyways the point is you might get bogged down in all the science talk, I encourage you to keep going or use the list I made below to get some background on the science-ey stuff in the book.
I think it’s worth mentioning that some parts of this book are not lovely. There are moments in Uncle Tungsten where Oliver talks of being beaten, abused, during his school days… that abuse had some effects that are mentioned a little bit further in the book (regression).
The audiobook version of Uncle Tungsten (available at audible.com) is crisp and clear. The narrator is easy to hear and understand… his voice however get’s a little monotonous after a while. The book is also so filled to the brim with science terms that can easily get you lost at the pace the narrator reads. I think this will only happen to you at a few particular parts though.
I feel it would’ve been absolutely wonderful if Oliver himself had narrated the book… but that’s just a dream. We’ll all have to settle for his words.
If you know of Oliver Sacks, then you’ll love this book.
If you are of a scientific mind, then you’ll love this book.
If you do not like science and / or Oliver Sacks, you will hate this book.
Things You’ll Find in Uncle Tungsten
- Chemistry in general
- Carl Wilhelm Scheele
- World War II
What you won’t find is information on Tungstalite, the lightbulb manufacturer, that Uncle Tungsten (Dave) ran. There just isn’t really any information despite the book being named after Uncle Tungsten.