Monday, 27 May 2013

Book review: The Periodic Table - Primo Levi (1975)


I wish I hadn't taken so long to get around to reading The Periodic Table. Not only is it a great book on science, it's also brilliantly and wonderfully written. Levi has the intelligence of Borges, but deploys it more judiciously, to enliven his stories rather than as the basis of them. He also has the power to inspire wonder for our world and to make insightful observations about man and our relation to it.

I feel like this is a book that, if read early enough in one's life, could have the power to change the entire course of it. You can see why the Royal Institute voted it the best science book ever written, even if the actual amount of scientific content is not so very high. Is there any better description of the process of scientific enquiry than:

"... one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this - to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it."

These are words that should be engraved above the entrances of scientific institutions and in the minds of students everywhere.

I found particular joy in the chapters "Potassium", in which Levi warns of the dangers of "the practically identical" with a storytelling prowess bordering on the magical, and "Chromium", which delightfully illustrates both the investigational scientific process in action and the tendency of recieved wisdom to persist even when harmful.

One word of warning: opening chapter "Argon" requires much more work than the rest of the book, so I would recommend either leaving it to last or ensuring you carry straight on to "Hydrogen" afterwards, to ensure you don't become discouraged.

Because as Saul Bellow says on my edition's cover, "This is a book it is necessary to read."

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