Famous Chemists – Primo Levi

One thing I’ve learnt teaching chemistry is that you have to make it come alive and one way to do that is to introduce some of the characters that have shaped our chemical world. I think in teaching we call this a hook but really it’s much more – it’s the story that someone remembers down the line, the name you remember at a pub quiz or it could just be the inspiration for a life long passion. 
So today I want to start with someone who will definitely thread through this blog as one post would never be enough – that’s the chemist Primo Levi. I was introduced to Primo Levi through his book ‘ The Periodic Table’ which has been suggested as the greatest science book ever. It’s so much more than that as it uses the elements to follows the story of a boy enthralled by chemistry who eventually ends up a young man imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War Two. It would be fair to say that chemistry saved Primo Levi’s life as he was picked to work in one of the IG Farben synthetic rubber factories rather than given physical labour. Very poignantly Levi recalls a later business correspondence with a German supplier about the quality of a paint only to discover he was dealing with the man who headed the Auschwitz laboratory in which he had been a slave labourer. I can’t begin to give Primo Levi’s story the platform it deserves so what I’ll do is add a few links if you want to read any further ( where does this fit in the curriculum – I feel the best place is AS and the introduction to the periodic table ) 

I’ll leave you with one of his quotes ‘For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world. I was fed up with books, which I still continued to gulp down with indiscreet voracity, and searched for a key to the highest truths; there must be a key, and I was certain that, owing to some monstrous conspiracy to my detriment and the world’s, I would not get in school. In school they loaded with me with tons of notions that I diligently digested, but which did not warm the blood in my veins. I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: “I will understand this, too, I will understand everything, but not the way they want me to. I will find a shortcut, I will make a lock-pick, I will push open the doors.”
How can it ever be put more eloquently – all a teacher wants to do is warm the blood. 





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