The International Year of the Periodic Table and the Aug. 5, 2019, issue of C&EN remind me of another periodic table: Primo Levi’s classic The Periodic Table. Levi was not only a prominent Italian literary figure but also a chemist and survivor of the Auschwitz death camps. As a chemist, he worked for an industrial paint company until his retirement in 1975. He continued to write full-time until his suicide in 1987.
Haunted by his 11-month ordeal at Auschwitz as a slave laborer, Levi was driven to write about his experiences and to bear witness. He published an impressive body of literary works, including three autobiographies, novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. His translations included books by Franz Kafka, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and two volumes of Henry Gilman’s Organic Chemistry.
Levi’s The Periodic Table, which was translated from the Italian to English in 1984, is an unusual autobiography consisting of 21 chapters, each named for an element that is related to some aspect of his life, symbolically or literally. For example, in the “Zinc” chapter, we learn that his first exposure to chemistry was in secondary school, experimenting in a friend’s home laboratory. Captivated by chemistry, he was enrolled at the Chemical Institute of Turin University in 1937. Since Mussolini’s racial laws prohibited Italian Jews from attending universities starting in 1938, he had just made the deadline.
As a fourth-year student in 1940, Levi was unable to obtain a research assistantship needed to fulfill his degree requirement; advanced training for Jews was prohibited under Italy’s racial laws. However, he completed a project on the Onsager theory within the Institute of Experimental Physics since the physics faculty were mostly antifascists (“Potassium” chapter).
Another Mussolini edict was that Italian Jews were prohibited from professional positions. To enforce this law, Levi’s diploma prominently stated that he was a member of “the Jewish race.” Nevertheless, he worked after graduation at a pharmaceutical company (“Potassium” chapter) and a state-owned asbestos mine (“Nickel” chapter). He was captured by the Italian militia in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz (“Gold” chapter), where he was a slave laborer in Buna-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III (“Cerium” chapter). In 1945, he was liberated by Russian troops and eventually returned home many months later.
His first postwar job in Italy was at Duco-Montecatini (“Chromium” chapter), a joint venture between DuPont and Montecatini. It was here that he wrote his first autobiography, Survival in Auschwitz.
Howard G. Barth
I read with interest the heroic efforts of weed scientists to fight the spread of herbicide-resistant species, such as Palmer amaranth (C&EN, Aug. 5, 2019, page 26). Coincidentally, I am also reading The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman about the wonders of wild greens, like amaranth (including Palmer), purslane, dandelion, lamb’s-quarter, chickweed, sorrel—all species familiar to weed scientists. These wild greens are delicious, are nutritious, and command a high value at farmers’ markets. Amaranth has been cultivated for about 8,000 years, and its seeds can be ground to a gluten-free flour that is high in protein. These wild foods are also great at building the soil by sequestering carbon directly out of the atmosphere. Who decided that the way to feed the world is to poison everything on it, except for a few proprietary monocultures? Why can’t we learn from the ancients how to live sustainably? The answer, of course, is economics. Such a shift would be a major blow to agribusiness and petrochemical, as well as pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. The only winners would be farmers, consumers, and those of us who care about people living on planet Earth in 50 years. Not a good business model.
Mark W. Schauer
Peterborough, New Hampshire