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If This is a Man (of Science)

Primo Levi

Book cover for Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.

“Linking the destinies of an individual and a molecule, chemistry defines very specific relationships between man and matter: neither domination nor submission, but a perpetual negotiation—through alliances or hand-to-hand struggles—among individual materials and human demands," explain Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabel Stengers in their history of chemistry.

Some of the most beautiful reflections on such negotiations were penned by Italian chemist Primo Levi. Born to a Jewish family on July 31, 1919, Levi spent the majority of his academic and professional life investigating the molecular world while also coping with anti-Semitism. Levi prevailed over religious discrimination by earning his Ph.D. and later finding employment in an asbestos mine, mainly by keeping his religion a secret. His fortitude and good luck, however, were not enough to prevent his eventual imprisonment at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. For three years, Levi was victim and witness to one of mankind’s greatest atrocities.

Levi’s internment ended with the war, and he returned home to start anew his career in industrial chemistry. He also used his freedom to draft two novels, several short stories ,and a collection of poems. In two of his most famous works, The Periodic Table and If This Is a Man, Levi shares memories from his days in the laboratory and at Auschwitz, respectively. The awe with which Levi writes about laboratory mishaps and triumphs mimics the fascination he conveys for the kindness and generosity of his follow concentration camp prisoners. Levi explores the potential of the physical and human worlds alike, an achievement to which storytellers aspire.

Jacqueline Boytim is a visitor services assistant at CHF's museum.

Related:
Episode 105: Periodic Table Contents [Distillations]

Posted In: History

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