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Richard Walker

The Periodic Table

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I see today's Google Doodle honors Dimitri Mendeleev who first described the periodic table. I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt, many years ago now, when I read that all chemical element fitted in to a system.

Because of that system it had been possible to predict the existence, and properties, of elements as yet unknown, but subsequently discovered by other investigators. This thought made me very excited and for a time I wanted to be a chemist.

By coincidence I've just been reading Primo Levi's book The Periodic Table. Published in 1975, it is a collection of short stories, each themed on a particular element. Two or three are works of pure imagination, but for the most part they are autobiographical, mainly from Levi's career as an industrial chemist in post-war Italy. Some draw on his experiences in Auschwitz.

Although the book wasn't published until the 1970s some of the stories seem to have been germinating for a long time. From something I read I believe final essay Carbon had been in Levi's mind since before his imprisonment. It is this story that first drew me to The Periodic Table (and later to Levi's other writing), because I read a very enthusiastic letter about it in a science journal, and I realized it was about an idea I've always had an interest in (and have tried to write about myself, but far less well).

In 2006 The Periodic Table was voted the best science book ever by the Royal Institution, in a very strong field. Paradoxically it probably won the prize because it is ultimately a humanistic book rather than a scientific one.

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