Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

The Periodic Table of Primo Levi

May 29, 2008

Levi’s Periodic Table is, without doubt, one of the finest and must-read books. I am sure there are plenty of recommendations for it — online and elsewhere. The book was recommended to me long time back; I also bought it quite a while ago; but, only now, I had a chance to read it, and I am happy I did. There probably are some readers of this blog too, who know about the book but haven’t picked it up yet. So, this post is just a nudge for those to locate a copy (and a reminder to those who have read it already to read it once more!).

I have had a few posts already quoting from Levi — here, here and here. In this one too, I want to draw attention to a few more of the passages that I enjoyed a lot.

Here is Levi, for example, as to why God did not patent polythene:

Now, at that time, there did not exist polyethylene, which would have suited me perfectly since it is flexible, light and splendidly impermeable: but it is also a bit too incorruptible, and not by chance God Almighty himself, although he is a master of polymerization, abstained from patenting it: He does not like incorruptible things.

While the utterances of physicists like Einstein and mathematicians like Hardy and Erdos about God and his characteristics are part of common lore, this (and others like this) from a chemist, I think, also needs a bit of popularisation.

While the attempts of Levi and his wife to collect chicken shit and python shit (to obtain alloxan from them) is as hilarious as informative (as the following excerpts show),

I returned home that evening, told my very recent wife the story of the alloxan and uric acid, and informed her that the next day I would leave on a business trip: that is, I would get  on my bike and make a tour of the farms on the outskirts of town (at that time they were still there) in search of chicken shit. She did not hesitate; she liked the countryside, and a wife should follow her husband; she would come along with me. It was kind of supplement to our honeymoon trip, which for reasons of economy had been frugal and hurried. But she warned me not to have too many illusions: finding chicken shit in its pure state would not be so easy.

The director and the various workers attached to the exhibition received me with stupefied scorn. Where were my credentials? Where did I come from? Who did I think I was showing up just like that, as if it were the most natural thing, asking for python shit? Out of the question, not even a gram; pythons are frugal, they eat twice a month and vice versa; especially when they did not get much excercise. Their very scanty shit is worth its weight in gold; besides, they — and all exhibitors and owners of snakes — have permanent and exclusive contracts with big pharmaceutical companies. So get out and stop wasting our time.

his description of how industrial effluents, at very small quantities, can wreak havoc on some of the chemical processes and industries is a cautionary tale of ecological balance/imbalance (though, I am not sure if it had been recognised as such in the seventies when the book was published):

… when all was said and done, it became obvious that a few thousand molecules of polyphenol absorbed by the fibers of the overalls during the wash and carried by an invisible piece of lint from the overall to the paper was enough to produce the spots.

Finally, while the piece of vanadium is a moving tale about people and their failings (and successes), the last chapter on Carbon is an epic piece worthy of being the last piece in such a book. I think is it Nietzsche who said that there is a bit of star in everybody and Levi shows how there is also a bit of limestone in everybody!

As I noted in one of my earlier pieces, reading Levi, I had the feeling that he is the Sheila Dhar of Chemistry; and hence, when I saw this description by Levi himself of Periodic Table, though I was not surprised, I did feel a bit awed as to how successful Levi had been in achieving the goal he has set for himself:

I told him that I was in search of events, mine and those of others, which I wanted to put on display in a book, to see if I could convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade, which is only a particular instance, a more strnuous version of the business of living. I told him that it did not seem fair to me that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin, countess, ancient Roman, conspirator, and Polynesian livves and nothing about how we transformers of matter live: but that in this book I would deliberately neglect the grand chemistry, the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying output, because this is collective work and therefore anonymous. I was more interested in the stories of the solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foor, at the measure of man, which with a few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of the founders, who did not work in teams but alone, surrounded by the indifference of their time, generally without profit, and who confronted matter wihtout aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.

So, locate The Periodic Table today and have some non-stop fun for five or six hours!

The foolishness of Prometheus

May 26, 2008

Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire on men instead of selling it to them; he would have made money, placated Jove, and avoided all that trouble with the vulture.

That is the latest installment of Primo Levi; by the way, I also loved the story of how

… ammonium chloride, …completely useless and probably a bit harmful,

got to be

religiously ground into the chromate anti-rust paint, …, and nobody knows why anymore.

The more I read Levi, the more I get the feeling that he is the Shiela Dhar of Chemistry!

Primo Levi on doing research

May 24, 2008

I have made some progress with Levi’s Periodic Table. Here are a couple of quotes from the book that I found very thoughtful and perceptive. The first one is about choosing research problems and/or tackling them:

… to do work in which one does not believe is a great affliction.

Here is another about a routine chore in the lab that Levi enjoyed:

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition. which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

Poetic, don’t you think?

The periodic table of Primo Levi

May 20, 2008

Finally, thanks to the hot summer weather of Madras which does not even allow me step out of the house, I am getting the time to read Primo Levi’s The periodic Table; I have read Argon, Hydrogen, and Zinc, and, am about to complete Iron. I have loved whatever I have read so far.

Here is a section from the chapter on Zinc, for example:

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is gray and its salts are colorless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elementes which are surrounded with the glamour of their discovery.

Of course, that part about humanity knowing zinc only for a few centuries is not correct; as Wikipedia puts it, while it was known only from the 16th century in the West, Indians knew about it from ancient times — at least for a few thousand years — and so, at least for me, zinc is anything but boring. But then, I do not know if this fact was well known in the West when Levi wrote his book in 1975.

If you can excuse that factual error in Levi’s piece, that paragraph is one of the most intimate ones on the topic of elements that I have read in a long while — the other such accounts I have read being Uncle Tungsten of Oliver Sacks and an essay titled Lavender by Andre Aciman. In any case, as the following paragraphs reveal, declaring zinc boring does not stop Levi from philosophizing about it:

The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered on the second, which I found more congenial.

This philosophizing tone suddenly turns personal and nostalgic (which is not surprising given the fact that the book, so strangely titled, is in fact a memoir):

Never mind: actually, it’s ground for debate. It could even become an essential and fundamental discussion, because I too am Jewish, and she is not: I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, …

And, the story has a tender ending too:

… asked Rita to let me walk her home. It was dark, and her home was not close by. The goal that I had set myself was objectively modest, but it seemed to me incomparably audacious: I hesitated half of the way and felt on burning coals, and intoxicated myself and her with disjointed, breathless talk. Finally, trembling with emotion, I slipped my arm under hers. Rita did not pull away, nor did she return the pressure: but I fell  into step with her, and felt exhilarated and victorious.

This mix of the personal, science, nostalgia and philosophizing is what I found to my liking in Levi’s book. I will write more about it when I finish reading it. In the meanwhile, if you can get a copy, don’t pass the opportunity.