The Best Science Book of All Time*: The Periodic Table

As I explained in a previous post, the latest book that I have been tackling here on the ‘Landing Eight’ Reading Challenge is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (or Il Sistema Periodico in the original Italian, 1975). I have previously read If This is a Man and The Truce (published in one volume) which I would list as a ‘must read’ even though strictly speaking I dislike the idea of telling folks what they should read. I find it hard to resist doing it occasionally though. To read of Levi’s experiences is the nearest that most of us will, fortunately, ever get to such inhumanity. Reading of them, bearing witness to such actions, is therefore the very least we can do.

Italian first edition of Il Sistema Periodico

First edition with Escher etching

The Periodic Table has long been on the back burner (as opposed to the Bunsen burner), probably because the scientific term of the title put me off a little. I was anticipating the prose to be inevitably laden with chemical names and processes and consequently rather hard going. After having finally read the book I can testify to the fact that my brain has been absorbing the names of elements and compounds that it has not had much reason to consider in years (apart from the basics such as oxygen and carbon that is).

stack of classics

It’s the fifth one down

As it happens, I found the chemistry experiments fascinating (especially when things failed to turn out as hoped) despite it being a very long time since I last studied science.  I admit that I would have had trouble recalling many of the elements on the Periodic Table off the top of my head (of course, chemists have added new discoveries to the table over the years). Since reading the book, I have been trying earnestly to recall the chemical symbols I used to know.

Having my chemical memories jogged a little has brought back images from the school year that saw our form ensconced in Lab 12 with Dr F as our form mistress. Looking back, I question the wisdom of the school using a science lab as a form  room, but I suppose anything really dangerous was locked safely away. I actually used to enjoy chemistry though I have a vague memory that my experiments generally failed to turn out as expected. There was a definite excitement in the processes of measuring and heating. Fortunately nothing actually exploded.

Then, I did go on to study bakery and confectionery, which is where you mix one ingredient with another to produce a chemical reaction.

diagram of The Periodic Table of Elements

The Periodic Table showing elements used by Levi

We all do chemistry every day, but just tend not to realise it as such. Now, I think that before I go in search of my old school lab coat, perhaps I had better do just a little more reading. If anyone has a favourite scientific read I would love to hear about it, so drop me a line in the comment box.

*As voted for in 2006 by a Royal Institution survey – link to a Guardian article here.

(Thanks as always to the nice people at Wikipedia for the additional illustrations of The Periodic Table diagram and the cover of the original Italian edition of Primo Levi’s book)


5 comments on “The Best Science Book of All Time*: The Periodic Table

  1. Aoife Roantree says:

    It’s very remiss of me, as both a science and a book geek, not to have read this. I’ll have to! A very manageable little volume, as I remember.


    • Chris Mills says:

      Well, I’ve only just got around to it after having it for years! If you want a read you ca borrow my copy.


  2. Andrew Hayden says:

    For more Chemistry, ‘The Disappearing Spoon’ is recommended – it gives a nice cursory history of the elements and their discovery. What makes ‘The Periodic Table’ so wonderful is that is the exploration of the personal relationship that Levi had with an ‘austere’ and ‘rigid’ discipline such as Chemistry – the story in which he recalls how Cerium essentially saves his life being the most haunting example.

    Also, you may already know the song, but get these lyrics off by heart and you’ll be set for life 🙂


    • Chris Mills says:

      Thanks for the tip, I’ll look that one out (as long as there isn’t a chemistry test at the back of it). I was particularly struck by ‘Vanadium’ and the reactions of Muller to their shared connection. Also, very different the chapter featuring Arsenic in the sugar amused me. Reminded me of the old film ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’. Btw, haven’t clicked on your link yet – will do so!


  3. […] camp where Levi was incarcerated. Some of the stories in Levi’s Periodic Table (mentioned in 31 August’s entry) describes his experiences there. I can highly recommend If this is a man/The Truce if you want to […]


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