The Mark of the Chemist

I’m currently reading The Periodic Table written by Primo Levi, who was a chemist as well as a writer. He was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and survived. It is a curious thing to be reading about the life of a chemist. I can sympathise with some of the frustrations expressed and this has at times for me overshadowed other aspects of the book which results in re-reading of passages. At the rate that I am progressing, I should be finished by 2015.

Levi also wrote an essay, The Mark of the Chemist on what it is like to be a chemistry student learning the practice of transforming materials into new substances. He described it like a set of ritualised events that all chemists would go through including a once common injury that Professor Martyn Poliakoff in the video explains.

I can’t even begin to imagine being part of an initiation process involving sticking glass in my hand. Odd coming from a person who willingly paid $30 to have her ears pierced during a lunch break. Though I can’t help but think that the rituals are still in place today but not ones resulting in injury. Today as I was pouring out a concentrated acid from its stock bottle my mind transported back to the time when I thought I was too busy to put on a pair of gloves when pouring acid. That was my first and so far only, (touch wood!), self induced chemical burn. I have never forgotten it and will now always reach for a pair of gloves before going anywhere near acid.

Having said that, if you talk to enough chemists, you will soon find that most of them will have a story to tell about an acid burn. I am one of the fortunate chemists that do not have a scar from an acid burn. Some are not so lucky. This seems to be the mark of the modern chemist.


Filed under chemistry365, Science

2 responses to “The Mark of the Chemist

  1. Welcome in the circle of Primo Levi lovers. He is one of the very few GREAT Italian writers of last century, and that book is simply a masterpiece. He was, among the rest, extremely curious about languages and words meanings, because of his chemical habits to precision, and in Italian his pages are simply brilliant. I don’t know if there are English editions of the two sci-fi tale books he issued in the 2nd half of the ’60s under a nickname (his name was so much “hot” because of his nazi-survival story that he preferred keeping it close): he anticipated a lot of themes which have became popular in that genre, surfing between concerns for the future and irony.
    Btw: on twitter you say you’re a photographer, too, but I wasn’t able to find your pictures on the web…?
    Sergio (CanonF1)

    • I’m finding Primo Levi’s writing in The Periodic Table to be very thoughtful and careful. I did find it hard to read at the beginning but as I have continued, I have grown to enjoy it and look forward to reading it just before I go to bed.

      I am working on a website to place my professional writing and photos in the one place. I’ll let you know when it’s launched. 🙂

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