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11 April 2017

Primo Levi and the Best Science Book ever Written

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

“So it happens, therefore, that every element says something to someone (something different to each) like the mountain valleys or beaches visited in youth.” This statement defines—and belongs to—the best science book ever written. The Periodic Table is one of the last works of Primo Levi (1919 – 1987), chemist, survivor of Auschwitz and writer, in that invariable order. In 2006, the Royal Institution distinguished his book ahead of the work of the ecologist Konrad Lorenz or the notebooks of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. This award, while being more symbolic than practical, is a prize for the incurable passion for science.

Primo Levi was an Italian chemist, survivor of Auschwitz and writer. Credit: Primo Levi Center New York

Levi wrote The Periodic Table in 1975, three decades after ceasing to be in a concentration camp, and twelve years before he died in the building in Turin in which he was also born. The book is composed of 21 chapters of personal stories, each of which he assigns to and links with a chemical element. The title is the metaphor. The writer himself describes in the last chapter (Carbon) the purpose of the work: “That this is not a chemical treatise (…) It is—or would have liked to be— a micro-history, the history of a trade and its defeats, victories, and miseries (…) What chemist, facing the Periodic Table, or the monumental indices of Beilstein or Landolt, does not perceive scattered among them the sad tatters, or trophies, of his own professional past? He only has to leaf through any treatise and memories rise up in bunches.”

The Royal Institution awarded the title of best science book by an informal vote: the audience present at an event at Imperial College chose from a list of scientific works the one which it considered best. This recognition has given rise to some criticism: The Periodic Table is not strictly a science book, especially given that two of its chapters are pure fiction, something that seems incompatible with science. Chemistry is important in the book, but on many occasions it appears tangentially. However, chemistry was the science to which Levi devoted practically all his professional career and also the one that saved his life. The Periodic Table is the history of that salvation, sustained throughout the pages and over the years.

Chemistry against Mussolini’s fascism

Levi supports his existence on this branch of science since discovering it with the obstinacy of a 16-year-old: “For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world.” From the beginning, says the Italian, chemistry becomes his shield against Mussolini’s fascism; against the segregation of races, the marginalization of the Jews; against the supremacy of spirit and dogma in the face of matter and thought. “My need for freedom, the plenitude of my strength, and a hunger to understand, the things he had pushed me towards chemistry.”  he says.

‘The Periodic Table’ is composed of 21 chapters of personal stories, each of which assigned with a chemical element. Credit: Paul Varuni/Flickr

In one of the first chapters, named Zinc, Levi takes advantage of the behaviour of this element (“yielding” to fusion with other acids, but “resistant to attack” in its pure state) to draw other conclusions: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.” The writer ends up linking himself with this element: “I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard. Impurity, certainly, since just during those months the publication of the magazine Defense of the Race had begun, and there was much talk about purity, and I had begun to be proud of being impure.”

At that time, Levi was at the Turin Chemical Institute, where he would study until 1941: “That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there, in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.”

From jail to Auschwitz

The book progresses, following Hitler’s advance across Europe: from the extreme difficulty for Levi to get his chemistry degree due to the racist laws; his personal disappointment at working to extract nickel from a mine aimed at the production of German arms; an impossible love for a Christian companion, up until the three months he tried to fight as a partisan, which would lead him, irremediably, to jail. This was his point of no return—his ticket to Auschwitz.

Levi only dedicates one chapter to the concentration camp, since that is something that he had already recounted elsewhere, according to his words. He arrived in hell with more than 600 Italian Jews, and he was one of the twenty who came out of it alive. His luck had the name of a chemical element: cerium, and the name of companions: Alberto and Lorenzo. Thanks to his scientific knowledge, Levi is assigned to a laboratory of IG Farben that was dedicated to producing Buna-N rubber. That enabled him to avoid forced labour and the chilling cold of Poland.

In addition, it allowed him to steal forty cerium cylinders, from each of which three lighter flints could be obtained. “According to Alberto, the price of a lighter flint was equivalent to a ration of bread, that is, one day of life. The total: one hundred and twenty flints, two months of life for me and two for Alberto, and in two months the Russians would have arrived and liberated us; and finally the cerium would have liberated us, an element about which I knew nothing.”

Levi mixes all these vital incursions with explanations on the behaviour of molecules, on the distillation of benzene. He tells the reader that sodium is a “degenerate” metal, though only in the chemical sense of the word, because it is not rigid, it does not shine and it floats on water. He states that asbestos is extracted badly when it is wet from rain, and that is why the rain gauge was a very important element in the mine. He details his unsuccessful work with phosphorus to treat diabetes. He concludes his book with the fictional but plausible adventure of a carbon atom that ends its journey in one of the cells of his brain in charge of writing: “It is the cell  which at this instant guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”

Por Beatriz Guillén



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