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)