There are lots of fantastic books that convey love of a science, depict the braided lines of logic and intuition and luck in experimentation, and depict scientists' lives both in and beyond the lab. Memoir, fiction, biography. Science as metaphor for life, these books will frequently allude to, or outright say. Inevitably they will also have it vice versa – life as metaphor for science – whether that is DNA as a blueprint, a microbe as friend or foe, or organic chemistry as a language – all things that are commonplace in science communication. But it's rare (I think) that a science book does all three depictions and both inversions in a way that is so natural and personal that you wonder how you could not have thought these things before.
So when I read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi for the first time, a gift from a friend (thank you!), I was blown away. Usually the books we write about in this blog are those published within the last couple years; this is an exception. First published in Italian in 1975, The Periodic Table is many stories folded into one. It is the story of a Jewish chemist in fascist Italy, it is a story of the growth of a love for science, of survival during the Holocaust, of the role of storytelling in survival, of preserving one's sense of self, of finding personal meaning in science... Of its twenty-one chapters, each named after a chemical element, some stories are memoir and some are fiction, but the constant throughout is that the distinction between chemistry and human life is indistinct.
I found my attention particularly drawn to the book's chronicling of the growth of a scientist, from Levi as a college-aged youth first discovering chemistry, to his middle-aged gigs in analytical chemistry. In the chapter "Hydrogen," there is a delightful depiction of hands-on curiosity and young Levi's spunk as he tinkers with electrolysis of water into oxygen and hydrogen. The chapter "Potassium" is a vignette on learning from early mistakes in the lab. Like the arrival at purified substances through chemical distillation described in this story, Levi distills bigger life lessons from his adventures (and explosive misadventures with potassium plus water) in the lab. The story "Nickel" is filled with young Levi's thrill – what he calls his "neophyte's enthusiasms" – as scientific principles learned in a classroom first become impactful in real life, no longer bound to the pages of textbooks. In "Chromium" is his detective-like work as he puzzles over how to stop paint from gelling, followed by the resulting thrill of scientific discovery, followed by a reflection on questioning everything and never taking for granted even long-established protocols (he compares formulas to dead languages). One must always stay vigilant in science, say the spaces between his sentences. Of course, there is also a story devoted to the inevitable failures in experimental science, "Nitrogen" (despite Levi's series of attempts to extract a nitrogenous compound from chicken droppings, "the shit remained shit").
"Chromium" and stories that follow it are enjoyable in research's detective-mystery kind of way. What is the unknown contaminant in a bag of sugar? What chemical constituents are required to produce a lipstick that stays on? What is this mystery metal left behind by Nazi pilots in the aftermath of the war? What is causing a manufactured paper product to be defective only in batches produced on Wednesdays? Such cases in Levi's stories are solved by scientific intuition and lines of logic. This all culminates in the final story, "Carbon," which narrates the convoluted route that a single carbon atom can travel between the life and death of organisms spanning centuries. It's a celebration of childlike sense of wonder. What kid, when learning for the first time that the molecules they are breathing were once breathed by dinosaurs, didn't imagine such a story themselves?
What comes to mind is a line from Pale Fire, a novel also by an author with a science background, and I think it's perfectly the heart of The Periodic Table: "How fully I felt nature glued to me." In all these stories, the title element embodies a central role in how either Levi or another character views or interprets the world. Previous elements reappear in cameos in chapters that follow – in a way the book is like a molecule. It's a reflection of the deep personal meaning and significance that science can have, of the many ways of looking at the world, of the poetry – as Levi often writes – in and of science. Chemistry and life are one and the same, in more ways than only the biochemical. It is an elemental kinship.
Possibly this book struck me so heavily in this moment because I'm one of the many who are starting grad school this fall and because within this chronicling of a scientist's growth are snippets of possible futures, possible destinations – and as I read the book I tried these on, like jackets at a store, hoping to predict what really will become the present. Within The Periodic Table's stories is an affirmation of the place of new generations, expressed most explicitly in these lines from an older Levi reflecting on his past: "The lab is a place for the young, and returning there you feel young again: with the same longing for adventure, discovery, and the unexpected that you have at seventeen… The lab revisited is a source of joy and exerts an intense fascination, which is that of youth, of an indeterminate future pregnant with possibilities, that is, of freedom." Also within The Periodic Table's stories is what is probably an appropriate response to uncertainties like my own: "what [is] the point of being twenty if you [can't] permit yourself the luxury of taking the wrong route."
Maybe others also with "neophyte's enthusiasms" have found or will find The Periodic Table similarly compelling. People find reflected pieces of themselves in books, and can move these likenesses around, like an abacus, to try to comprehend the meaning of things that happened or are happening or will happen. I wonder if this is not what biology is, as well? To me it seems an echo, except it's pieces of data that are moved around instead.
A linked question: Why are so few scientists also writers of fiction? Realistically lack of time, but the two professions share the same goal of understanding life, not to mention shared skill sets and sensibilities. Levi writes admiringly of early chemists as scientists "who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination." This evokes the elegant Crick paper that established the triplet nature of the genetic code, but I think it is equally applicable to writers of fiction. Fiction tries to make sense of the world, as does biology. They approach the quest from different but complementary angles. (So in response to the Talmudic Question we had a couple weeks ago, on biologists lacking a watertight definition of life: no, biology is assuredly not a 'lesser science.')
During the past couple months I've been seeking out fiction written by people with scientific backgrounds – specifically, the kind of fiction that's broadly categorized (for better or for worse) as "literary fiction," the kind of fiction that peers at people and asks the often not-so-comfortable "why" and "how" questions about their relationships and thoughts and behaviors. Such stories authored by scientists, as a collective body of work, are fascinating to me. There seems to so frequently be moments of extraordinary eloquence in detailing people's relationships with the natural world and so much detail hidden in what is not explicitly said (things "between the lines") that mirrors sensibilities in science. There is frequently a "very scientist" desire or compulsion to rationalize even things that often cannot be rationalized, like emotions. Scientific principles and ways of reasoning and questioning show up in explorations of personhood. And, the stories' plots seem to have the choreography of hard-earned open-ended answers.
Maybe this is confirmation bias? In any case, here are some other great stories by scientist types: stories by Yiyun Li (who has a bachelor's degree in cell biology and a master's in immunology); Real Life by Brandon Taylor (who was a biochemistry PhD student before switching to an MFA program); Chemistry by Weike Wang (bachelor's in chemistry and PhD in public health); Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee (degrees in mathematics); works by Barbara Kingsolver (degrees in biology); and as mentioned, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (entomologist specializing in butterflies).
If anyone has more recommendations, I would love to hear and read.