From classics through chance to chemistry and beyond.

Quotations from Primo Levi’s comments on ‘To See Atoms’

one of the lectures chosen by Primo Levi

when he set out on his ‘Search for Roots’:

A Personal Anthology – his essential reading –

the thirty pieces of prose and poetry

he chose for this book that was

translated into English by

Peter Forbes.

At the age of sixteen a student

the youngest, smallest, cleverest

and the only Jew in this class

is studying the classics.

And no wonder, for the son of

a liberal Jewish Turin family in

Mussolini’s Italy might uncover

much in the story of ancient Rome

among poets, writers, historians

perhaps Virgil, Caesar, Seneca

even the work of the poet Lucretius

even De Rerum Natura.

And in 1935 he finds in lectures

perhaps in a library – call it chance -–

in English, Concerning the nature of things,

Lucretius’s poem about the Greek atomists

lectures given by a Nobel prize winner –

once the Elder Professor of Mathematics

who taught far from Europe’s centres of science

and found joy in life and physics in Adelaide.

Sir William Bragg had delivered them

in 1925 at the Royal Institution.

A decade on, Bragg’s words in ‘To see atoms

offer this boy a way to explore the universe.

He is ‘captivated by the clear and

simple things that they say’ – ‘divining’ in

Bragg’s vision ‘a great hope’ moving from

‘the world of minute atoms’ . . ‘infinitely far’.

He decides to be a chemist and again –

with chance on his side  – this student

matriculates and enters university

just before Jews are denied that right.

Chemistry will save him from German hands.

He is of value, worth keeping alive.

The SS in Auschwitz can use this chemist

to make synthetic rubber for their industries.

When he catches scarlet fever, fear of contagion

makes his guards isolate him in the sanatorium

where he lies while his compatriots are marched

to their death before the Russians arrive.

Auschwitz becomes the catalyst –

a writer and a poet comes back to Italy

ready to make all who would rather forget

feel and face their part in this genocide.

In different stories, in The Periodic Table,

chemist and story teller combine elements

in narrative for us – the general readers –

giving us the human connection we need.

Before he dies, in The Search for Roots,

he leaves us a legacy of four pathways and

there, is his conviction that William Bragg,

with Lucretius, Darwin and Clarke, belongs

on the pathway of ‘salvation through knowledge.’

                                                                                                Erica Jolly

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