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!).
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!