It’s 150 years since the development of the periodic table – the inspiration for chemist and concentration camp survivor Primo Levi to write one of the great testaments to the human spirit
Long before Stephen Jay Gould or Stephen Hawking, the Italian writer, Primo Levi, sought to make science accessible to the layperson. His literary-scientific memoir, The Periodic Table, first published in Italy in 1975, offered a lapidary integration of science and literature, and continued a tradition of scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin that vanished in the twentieth century in the wake of academic specialisation.
Daringly, Levi structured his book round elements of the chemist’s periodic table. Certain elements seemed to Levi to evoke images of his past experiences; he used these as aides-memoires, drawing from potassium, say, or titanium, a thread of reminiscence to weave his life history. Chronicled are the fumes, stinks, bangs and fiascos (as well as the occasional triumphs) of Levi’s early chemistry experiments in 1930s Fascist Italy, his deportation as a Jew to Auschwitz, and his post-war recovery as writer and manager of a paint and varnish factory on the outskirts of his native Turin.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, in March 1869, the Russian Jewish chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published what would become known in English as “The Periodic Table”. Mendeleev was the first chemist to organise the elements in a grid-table according to their atomic weight. In 100 or so squares containing symbols and numbers he devised a grand yet simple design for the universe.