Saturday, April 27, 2019

Levi's The Periodic Table

Image result for primo leviEnvironmental & Science Education
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

As you know 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of the Elements

I recommend a book that is not about the periodic table but uses a number of elements as a way of introducing meditations on the author's life and career. There is not much about chemistry but the book includes ideas about the nature of chemical science as well as its history. The book is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (PT), a book I think is a masterpiece.

I had a copy for many years but no longer. I hope it is in holdings of a college in Africa (Books for Africa), a result of a major house and office cleaning. I almost kept it but didn't and mostly I'm glad for I'd like others to read it. I also hope it is being read.

Primo Levi took his Ph.D. in chemistry and then practiced chemistry in industry. He is also a survivor of Auschwitz (#174517) and has written about that year of cruelty which is unimaginable from the time he was captured to when the camp collapsed, notably in If This is a Man, but PT includes some references to his time there.

To help you decide whether you want to take time to read it, the book was recently reviewed in Nature by Tim Radford who reviewed it in 1985, ten years after its publication. He thought the book was "gold." Radford still does and believes that it will be relevant and read 100 years from then.

The following quote from Radford's splendid review may give you of how Levi makes use of the elements in his reflections. A for Argon and Zn for Zinc are described.

Levi was born in Turin in 1919. What narrative there is begins with his ancestry, peopled by individuals “noble, inert and rare”, but poor compared with “other illustrious Jewish communities in Italy and Europe”. The story is ‘Argon’, from the Greek for inactive. His memories of barbe and magne (uncles and aunts in the dialect of his native region, Piedmont) become a reflection on words, in Hebrew and Yiddish too. The links between obdurate matter and precarious survival become more intimate with time, as he graduates, begins a career, finds ways just to stay alive. The realization that zinc samples must be impure to yield to acid triggers an insight into the importance of difference and the new place of the Jewish people in fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, who ruled from 1922 to 1943.

Here is the Radford review.

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