The Periodic Table – science, art and literature.

Primo Levi The Periodic Table, First published 1975. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. With ‘An Essay on Primo Levi’, by Philip Roth. Published in Penguin Classics with the essay by Philip Roth, 2000. First translated edition published in USA in 1984.

The Periodic Table has been named the best science book ever by the Royal Institution of Great Britain – 2006 – and is considered to be Primo Levi’s crowning achievement. The stories are written in ‘luminous, clear, and unfailingly beautiful prose”.

The 21 short stories cover – Argon, Hydrogen, Zinc, Iron, Potassium, Nickel, Lead, Mercury, Phosphorus, Gold, Cerium, Chromium, Sulfur, Titanium, Arsenic, Nitrogen, Tin, Uranium, Silver, Vanadium, Carbon.

“In these haunting reflections, Primo Levi, a chemist by training, takes the elements of the periodic table for his inspiration. He ranges from young love to political savagery; from the inert gas argon – and ‘inert’ relatives like the uncle who stayed in bed for twenty-two years – to life-giving carbon. ‘Iron’ honours the mountain-climbing resistance hero who put iron in the young student Levi’s soul. ‘Cerium’ recalls the improvised cigarette lighters which saved his life in Auschwitz, ‘Vanadium’ describes an eerie post-war correspondence with the man who had been his ‘boss’ there.”

Philip Roth, author of American Pastoral, calls Primo Levi, ‘the most delicately forceful enchanter I’ve ever known.’ In the essay, Philip Roth interviews Primo Levi.

I wish I had known these stories by Primo Levi, industrial chemist, survivor of Auschwitz and one of the finest writers of post 1945 Europe, when I was teaching Belinda at Marion High School, named a ‘lighthouse school’ in 1985 for South Australia. She was an outstanding student of literature. Her brilliant chemistry teacher, who enabled so many girls to enjoy and do well studying chemistry, was unable to help her to make sense of the periodic table. Primo Levi would have found a way. I invite teachers and students to find and read this book now on the 150th anniversary of the formulation of the Periodic Law by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. [Learn about the role of his mother in his education – it’s a wonderful story.]

Thank you to Ed Ayres and our ABC RN’s Art Show Wed July 17th 2019.

Across Australia, we discover the Director of Quantum Victoria is encouraging the connection of the sciences and the humanities by this decision to celebrate the elements of the periodic table through the arts. I have added the much-needed element of literature through Primo Levi’s book. His Periodic Table will add to the recognition of intersections.*

Image: Damon Kowarsky and Hyun Ju Kim bring art and science together with this collection of 51 artworks celebrating the periodic table. (Supplied)

To celebrate this anniversary, Quantum Victoria asked these artists to focus on elements of the periodic table. They chose 51 of them. The artists were talking to Ed Ayres about their approach to this work. Their approach is holistic. They want art to be useful, not merely decorative. So, as part of their exploration and celebration of the elements, the historical and geo-political aspects of their chosen elements have been brought in. (view full episode)

Art meets science for the 150th anniversary of the periodic table

Ed speaks with artists Damon Kowarsky and Hyun Ju Kim about their collection of 51 artworks—each one illustrates a significant element of the periodic table.

[* ‘Intersections’ is a maths/poetry blog here in ‘Sciences and Humanities’]

Thank you again to our public, inclusive Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

3 thoughts on “The Periodic Table – science, art and literature.

  1. Thanks Erica (and RN) for another fascinating post. What an amazing man Primo Levi was, and what an innovative (STEAM-powered :)) way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table using Levi’s work, and those of the artists working with QV.


    1. I am rereading ‘The Periodic Table’. With ‘Zinc’, I come to the ‘pure’ and the ‘impure’; the ‘pure’ promoted by Fascism in Italy and the ‘impure’ being the mix of elements that make up life. At this time he is a university student. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the sciences and politics have nothing to do with one another. Both are in the hands of human beings.


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