Friday, February 14, 2014

Chemistry Book Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

A few years back an event organized by the Royal Institute of London named Primo Levi's The Periodic Table the best science book ever written. Although others can and have done far better jobs analyzing the philosophical and literary significance of Levi's work, I'd like to share a few of my thoughts, some from a scientific perspective.

Before reviewing the book, a brief background on Primo Levi is necessary. Levi was born in 1919 into a relatively well-to-do Jewish family in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. His entry into university to study chemistry coincided with the increase in severity of the Fascist party's laws against Jews. As a result, Levi was among the last Jews able to earn a degree in Fascist Italy. Although racial laws should have prevented Levi from gaining employment as a chemist after graduation, through a combination of an Italian army officer who—in Levi's assessment—"took a bitter and subtle pleasure in breaking the laws of racial separation," and subsequent employment by a Swiss firm operating in Milan, Levi managed to work as a chemist through the partition of Italy in 1943.

In 1943 Levi found himself trapped in the still Fascist and now essentially German controlled northern Italy. He joined a group of partisan fighters, but was soon captured and eventually sent to Auschwitz. He managed to survive his time in the concentration camp, largely due to his ability to work as a scientist.

After the liberation of Auschwitz, he spent the remainder of his life in his native Italy working as an industrial chemist and a writer, publishing in particular his famous Holocaust memoir If This is a Man. In 1987 he died of a fall which at the time was widely considered to have been suicide as a result of depression and lingering PTSD from his experiences in the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel famously remarking that Levi "died at Auschwitz forty years earlier." However, later research has indicated that his death was more likely an accident.

Enough about the author, what of the book? Even after reading it, I still can't give a solid description of its category. Each of the book's twenty-one chapters are named after an element and more or less revolve around the named element. The connection can be as loose as the first chapter, Argon, which relates the history of his ancestors who he considers rather subdued and inert. The connection can also be as close as the last chapter, Carbon, which relates the story of a carbon atom as it travels from limestone to carbon dioxide to a tree, eventually ending up as part of Levi himself. Most chapters are self-contained autobiographical stories and relate to their named element through Levi's work as a chemist, though there are a few element-based fiction short stories as well. With the exception of Cerium, the book does not directly deal with Levi's experiences in the Holocaust, which he detailed in other works, in particular If This is a Man. Ultimately, I would have to say that The Periodic Table is best described as a collection of short stories centered around Levi's life and the common theme of the elements.

Before getting to the chemistry, I'd like review one chapter. In my opinion, the most powerful chapter in the book, the one you should read even if you don't read any other, is Vanadium. The story begins with Levi working as a chemist in the late sixties and trying to track down a problem with resin supplied by a respected German company. The chemistry is interesting in its own right, but the story soon takes an unexpected turn when Levi realizes that his contact in Germany is a man whom he knew from the concentration camps as a civilian scientist working for the Nazis. The ability to describe the grey areas of humanity is where Levi really excels. He recognizes that the man for whom he still harbors resentment was not a Hollywood villain, but rather an ordinary man who, placed in a horrific situation, lacked the moral courage to do anything but passively comply. He recognizes that this man too has a narrative in which he did the best he could in the face of the monster, but that understanding the other's narrative is not the same as coming to peace with it. Vanadium is not a comforting chapter, but it is a worthwhile one.

What of the chemistry? I found it of interest that much of what Levi describes as chemistry, especially in pre-war Europe, was more along the lines of what we would consider chemical engineering, or perhaps analytical chemistry. In the beginning of his eduction, he spent five hours a day in what might be best described in modern terms as qual labs, given tasks such as the preparation of zinc sulfate. It appears that the majority of his education was more of the same, with some organic chemistry thrown in for good measure.

Surprisingly absent from Levi's education appears to have been any serious study of quantum mechanics or thermodynamics, and you can probably guess from the blog's title as to my feelings about the place of quantum mechanics in chemistry. Granted, even Hartree-Fock did not come into its own until the 1950's, but G.N. Lewis' work was well established by Levi's time, and Linus Pauling's work on the chemical bond was roughly contemporary to Levi's time in school. Perhaps European chemists back then just weren't all that interested in American work?

As for thermodynamics, there's no doubt that it was a well established field by Levi's time. All I can guess is that back then thermodynamics was considered the exclusive purview of physics. Considering how little Levi seems to have covered of what actually makes chemistry tick, it's no surprise that, as he approached graduation, he writes (in Potassium) that he felt:

Did chemistry Theorems exist? No: therefore you had to go...back to the origins, to mathematics and physics. The origins of chemistry were ignoble, or at least equivocal: the dens of the alchemists...
As a chemist, I find it of particular interest to note the extent to which chemistry has moved from engineering and application toward theory and physics in the past century; though I will grant that as a computational chemist my views of the field may differ from those of chemists in different areas.

Overall, though I can't place it in one specific category, I feel that The Periodic Table is an excellent read for a variety of people. This book covers themes from basic real world applications of chemistry, to what it was like to be young during the rise of Fascism, to what it's like to deal with men placed on the wrong side of history. As a final note, it's a great book to give to anyone who feels that scientists can only appreciate science and not humanity.