A few months ago the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) had to take a decision on the only apparently very simple task of giving a name to the latest discovered chemical elements. Even a basic understanding of chemistry and the way the periodic table is made will make apparent how such decision is both of little significance and at the same time irrepetible. Of little significance, for those elements are only artificially made and have a short and turbulent life before becoming a lighter and more stable element; almost irrepetible, because the number of new element “discovered” is probably reaching the limit of what is humanly possible.
Some people argued that one of those elements should have been called Levium, in honour to Primo Levi’s and the short stories of “The periodic table” (“Il sistema periodico” in Italian), unfortunately with little success.
Primo Levi, who is mostly known for his recollection of his deportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp, possesses two only apparent antithetical qualities as a writer: he is both a distant observer and a relentless moral agent. The former quality appears somewhat wrong when used to describe the hopeless struggle that characterized the inmates of the annihilation camps, but such distance acquires sense when used to derive fundamental truths about human nature. This is most evident in the “I sommersi e i salvati” (“The drowned and the saved”) chapter of “Se questo e’ un uomo” (“If this is a man”).
A similar approach is taken in the main theme of “The periodic table”: the somewhat technical recollection of the experiences of the author as a chemist (mostly in the varnish industry) are used to again convey some very sharp truths about human nature, but most of all what science is.
In many occasions throughout the book (each chapter revolving around a particular element), Levi demonstrate to know all too well the high of intellectual discovery, and chooses to stay far away from collective discoveries and scientific enterprises, but to focus on the solitary work of single chemists, which is very similar in spirit to the work of the first alchemists. This is especially true, Levi claims, when considering the daily struggle of a chemist working in an industry, whose day-to-day battle against matter itself eventually only leads to very occasional small victories and surely to burn-out with age; “Chromium”, “Nickel” and “Silver” are very good examples of chapters where this concept is exposed. Other chapters are instead more intimate and moving, were chemistry is put aside to give space to Levi’s moral compass, forged by a life of terrible experiences and constant observation of human nature. Some of those chapters, like “Argon” and “Tin”, are exhilarating accounts of the family and friends of the author. Others instead recall more dramatic moments in the author’s life, and are probably the best parts of the book. In “Iron”, a fellow chemistry student with a passion for climbing is used to show what is like (and what’s the cost) of being free; the opposite concept is presented in “Gold”, when the author has been captured by fascists and fears that he would soon die. In “Cerium” an episode from the Nazi lager is recalled to remind that some basic (and maybe irrational) form of human will can persist even in the face of hopelessness. Finally in “Vanadium”, the incredible and fortuitous exchange between Levi and one of the German civilians with whom he interacted in Auschwitz shows how morality is a complex matter even when reason is indisputably on one side of the argument.
I could not recommend this book enough, especially to anyone accustomed to rational thought. Even though it would be impossible to replicate this formula, I cannot but wonder how a similar book would look like for disciplines like physics (a chapter for each particle?) or even “messier” sciences like biology (a chapter for each species?). It could actually be an interesting exercise for a crowd-sourced book, where stories on a single “unit” of each discipline are contributed by different people. I would surely like to write a chapter about one or two bacterial species.