Posts Tagged ‘The periodic table’

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!

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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.