ENCOUNTERS WITH PRIMO LEVI Roald Hoffmann (remarks at an evening dedicated to Primo Levi, at Italian Cultural Institute in New York City, Jan. 29, 2007)

It would be natural that a chemist who is also a writer, and one who is Jewish as well, a survivor of World War II, should encounter and be interested in the work and person of Primo Levi. I actually came to Levi late, only in the 1980’s, on reading The Periodic Table. The fault is mainly mine – I did not read Italian, had not entered Italian literature sufficiently to have heard of him. And I had missed the translations of Se questo è un uomo, and La tregua (in English called variously Survival at Auschwitz or If This Is a a Man and The Reawakening or The Truce). Ten years elapsed between the 1975 publication of Il Sistema Periodico in Italian and its translation into English. Now there are precious few books about chemistry and chemists in what one might call a humanistic setting, by good writers – be they fiction or biography. These rare books not only give personal pleasure, but they also serve as teaching resources. Our Italian colleagues might have alerted us to this instant classic of a fully integrated life in which chemistry was at the core. My impression is that in Italian chemical literature Il Sistema Periodico was reviewed perfunctorily, with an unforgiving pointing out of a few errors, and without appreciation of the uniqueness of the book. Tant pis. The first thing I did after encountering Raymond Rosenthal’s beautiful translation was to read everything else by Levi that had been translated. Not that I liked everything but there was so much that resonated with what and how I thought. And, importantly, I learned from Primo Levi.


A poem for Levi In 1987 Levi died. The following year I wrote a poem in his memory. Let me begin by reading that: SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD in memory of Primo Levi Shall this heap of gold teeth pulled root and all by kapos speak for them? They once bit a sugar cube for every cup of tea with raspberries. They remember too many Sabbath sweets. If not this, shall the unmuted witness of man's base twist speak of Mengeles and Ivans, freezing experiments, the butt of a gun? In the same camp a man gave me two crusts of bread, and some rare earth metal chips sold well as flints. Who shall speak for the dead? I, said the dazzling southern day. I waft you the smell of a favela. I bring you news from a doctor. And I, said my night. I give you eels of comparison with those who didn't come back. I speak for the dead when I take away your breath when I wake you every day at 5 the time you woke in the camp.


Levi as a Chemist He was one.

Teaching with Levi One time when I ordered The Periodic Table for my class, I chanced to see the bookstore’s catalogue of books ordered for that semester for all Cornell courses, and saw that the same book was used in three – my chemistry one, a course on Holocaust literature, and a third one on biography. A book’s life in academia is hardly a reflection of the real world of the human spirit. Yet this independent selection tells you of the value and special qualities of this book. Let me preface my experience in teaching The Periodic Table by saying that at Cornell we teach over 2000 young people at least one semester of chemistry every year. In one particular class there are over 1000 students, 700 of whom think they want to be doctors (or their parents do…), 400 of whom will become doctors, Less than 40 of them will, like Levi’s fellow Torino students, be chemists. Many of these very able young people are tense, caught up in their premature professionalism. It’s not the best starting point for a general education. Why did I want my students to read Primo Levi? Because even in this great university their lives are fragmented and compartmentalized. 3

They study chemistry, survive through the next problem set in mathematics, step into a history course. And Levi’s life was not fragmented. Chemistry was an essential part of his existence, hardly separated from survival or philosophy. Some of that may have been chance (the role chemistry played in his survival in the concentration camp), but it was also an inner choice. I want my students to feel this. Not because I want them to be chemists. But I feel a need to put before them a vision of a man, who might not have been one of the heroic figures of chemistry, but one for whom the world was one. And chemistry was an important part of that world. The first time I used The Periodic Table, I had it as a required text in that class of 1000 ( a pleasant shock for Shocken books) It was a shock for me too for me too, as the students viewed the time spent on the book as a digression, and by and large resented it. Shall I blame them, or their parents, or our society? I told them clearly why I felt we should read this book, as I told you. One amusing problem was the teaching assistants, who, whether foreign (40%) or American, on balance were perhaps even more puzzled than the students. They hinted that they did not come to graduate school to grade English papers – I had the students write one, and they were quite used to papers. The next two years I backed off and tried something else. The book was not required, nor a paper on it. I just told the class that here was a book that meant a lot to me. So I would discuss it with anyone interested, in two two hour sessions. No requirement, no extra credit. only a chance to talk to me, to read with me. I got about 60 takers for the first session, 50 people for the second. Say, 5% of the class. And I could tell that to the great majority of these young people the book mattered. Some said they would buy it for their parents or Christmas or Chanuka. Now that is a high compliment. Since then, I have used it this way, and also as a required book in somewhat smaller introductory chemistry courses, with up to 150 people. I learned the students desperately needed a framing introduction to Fascism and World War II, some geography as well. My and Levi’s world was not their world. I learned that it was OK to tell them on first reading to skip the first chapter (who was Levi’s editor?) They learned to like his high style, so well rendered in Raymond Rosenthal’s translation. And they rose with enthusiasm to the challenge of writing a creative paper, putting part of their


lives in the style of a Levi chapter. Since some of these students were in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I sure got to know a lot about the first time they added calcium supplements to their dairy herd’s diet. Primo Levi Speaks to Me For so many things I’ve written I’ve found a resonance in Levi. So, the contrast of creation and discovery is something that has fascinated me, and I have written of it many times. The twentieth century in chemistry was that of synthesis, of the making of molecules. Creation is different from discovery. It brings chemistry close to the arts. And, lest we get too high on that, it brings us close to engineering. The recognition of the centrality of synthesis was well understood by Levi, thus the instant sympathy and admiration between the chemist and the builder Faussone in the “The Monkey’s Wrench”, La Chiave a Stella. This is doubly interesting as Levi was by training an industrial and analytical chemist, and many of the achievements of The Periodic Table are discovery stories. I wrote a book “The Same and Not the Same”, in which there is vaguely Jungian view of chemistry, each its facts precariously balanced along many axes or polarities. Pure/impure is one, as is natural/unnatural, harm/benefit, creation and discovery, to reveal/to conceal, equilibrium/extreme. And identity or difference, the greatest of polarities. Primo Levi says it beautifully, in the context of a chapter in The Periodic Table where he tires of chemistry “Where are theorems of chemistry?” and turns to physics. Where he has to do some chemistry. He needed sodium to dry an organic solvent, but he used potassium, another alkali metal, right under sodium in the periodic table instead. He writes of what the experience meant to him: ...I thought of another moral...and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad's switch points; the chemist's trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist's trade.


I recently wrote four short scripts for an Italian radio station. They filled the August doldrums for those who had to stay in the city, and were called Cosi simili, cosi diverse. One of them, about ephedrine, adrenalin, pseudoephedrine, and methamphetamine, four similar, yet very different molecules, ended with this same quotation. In drawing metaphor from chemistry, as he often did, Levi was like the English poet Coleridge, who said that when he needed metaphors he went to watch some experiments by his friend, the great English chemist Humphry Davy, Here is Levi, in his dialogue with Tullio Regge: “...I must say that my chemistry, which was actually a “low” chemistry, almost culinary, first of all supplied me with a vast assortment of metaphors. . I find myself richer than other writers because for me words like “bright,” “dark’” “heavy,” “light,” and “blue” have a more extensive and more concrete gamut of meanings...” Let me read that closing quote from The Periodic Table again: The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad's switch points; the chemist's trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist's trade. Now that is great writing. I like it that it begins in chemistry.


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