Books in Scientia – Uncle Tungsten

Title and author

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

uncle tungsten

What’s it about?

Part memoir, part chemical history. Sacks takes the reader on a journey through chemical history and his own childhood, where he’s discovering and carefully nurturing a love for chemistry and the chemical elements. Spoiler alert – he ends up becoming a doctor and not a chemist – WUT.

What are the good bits?

I thought the memoir parts of the book were better than the parts about the history of the elements. Human stories eh? Apparently they’re engaging or something.

What are the not-so-good bits?

I don’t know if it counts as a ‘not-so-good’ bit, but there is a part close to the beginning about the Sacks family dog that really got to me, in a very not nice way. I think this is more a demonstration of the authors writing prowess that it affected me in such a way. And that I really love my dog.

I was also annoyed by the frequency and size of the footnotes, until I came to the part of the book where Sacks explains why he has such a fondness for footnotes. Then I forgave him.1

What does it say on p216 line 17?

I got a vertiginous, almost ecstatic satisfaction from seeing familiar terrestrial elements out in space, seeing what I had known only intellectually before, that the elements were not just terrestrial but cosmic, were indeed the building blocks of the universe

A wonderful example of Sacks exceptional writing style, describing his observation of spectral lines viewed through his uncle’s telescope/spectroscope.

Who should read it?

Anyone, everyone. People who like things.

How good is it?


tungsten stars1

4.5 mortar and pestles out of 5

1 Well I mostly forgave him, I continue to find footnotes quite infuriating. If it’s interesting or pertinent enough to include in the book at all, why not just have it in the main body of the text? When a footnote runs over the bottom half of two entire pages, I want to punch a kitten in the face. When I have to read a book running two bookmarks, one for the main text and one for the footnotes at the end (endnotes?), I want to punch two kittens in the face.