sometimes witty book reviews
I’ve never looked at the periodic table and seen stories. It’s straight, squared lines, seemingly endless numbers and relatively simple system of symbols just wouldn’t have inspired me before Primo Levi turned it all around.
Levi is best known perhaps for his autobiographical account of life in Auschwitz: If this is a Man (1947). Yet The Periodic Table (1975) continues to hold a unique place in both science and literary writing.
There is no plot except within each chapter itself. Most are autobiographical accounts, two are fiction, half are stories and the rest most likely true accounts. There are twenty one chapters, each named after an element.
The nuances of the naming are perhaps best understood by chemists, but it’s not hard to tell why Sulphur tells the tale of the caustic life of a smelter’s work; that Argon recounts the noble (as in Noble gas) lives of Levi’s village ancestors. My favourite chapter, Titanium, is about a little girl watching a man paint a door.
The creativity of chemical science is fully realised in Primo Levi’s prose. Read before chemistry classes of any nature.