The Periodic Table (short story collection)

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This article is about the book by Primo Levi. For the children's book by Simon Basher, see The Periodic Table (Simon Basher book).
The Periodic Table
Periodic table.jpg
First edition
Author Primo Levi
Original title Il sistema periodico
Translator Raymond Rosenthal
Cover artist M. C. Escher
Country Italy
Language Italian
Publisher Einaudi (Italian)
Schocken Books (English)
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardcover) and (Paperback)
Pages 233
ISBN 0-8052-3929-4
OCLC 16468959
The elements that are titles of the stories.

The Periodic Table (Italian: Il Sistema Periodico) is a collection of short stories by Primo Levi, published in 1975, named after the periodic table in chemistry. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever.[1]


The stories are autobiographical episodes of the author's experiences as a Jewish-Italian doctoral-level chemist under the Fascist regime and afterwards. They include various themes following a chronological sequence: his ancestry, his study of chemistry and practising the profession in wartime Italy, a pair of imaginative tales he wrote at that time,[2] and his subsequent experiences as an anti-Fascist partisan, his arrest and imprisonment, interrogation, and internment in the Fossoli di Carpi and Auschwitz camps, and postwar life as an industrial chemist. Every story, 21 in total, has the name of a chemical element and is connected to it in some way.


  1. "Argon" – infancy of the author, the community of Piedmontese Jews and their language
  2. "Hydrogen" – two children experiment with electrolysis
  3. "Zinc" – laboratory experiments in a university
  4. "Iron" – the adolescence of the author, between the racial laws and the Alps
  5. "Potassium" – an experience in the laboratory with unexpected results
  6. "Nickel" – in the chemical laboratories of a mine
  7. "Lead" – the narrative of a primitive metallurgist (fiction)[3]
  8. "Mercury" – a tale of the populating of a remote and desolate island (fiction)[4]
  9. "Phosphorus" – an experience from a job in the chemical industry
  10. "Gold" – a story of imprisonment
  11. "Cerium" – survival in the Lager
  12. "Chromium" – the recovery of livered varnishes
  13. "Sulfur" – an experience from a job in the chemical industry
  14. "Titanium" – a scene of daily life
  15. "Arsenic" – consultation about a sugar sample
  16. "Nitrogen" – trying to manufacture cosmetics by scratching the floor of a hen-house
  17. "Tin" – a domestic chemical laboratory
  18. "Uranium" – consultation about a piece of metal
  19. "Silver" – the story of some unsuitable photographic plates
  20. "Vanadium" – finding a German chemist after the war
  21. "Carbon" – the history of a carbon atom



The book was dramatised for radio by BBC Radio 4 in 2016.[5] The dramatisation was broadcast in 12 episodes, with Henry Goodman and Akbar Kurtha as Primo Levi.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ The Guardian: Levi's memoir beats Darwin to win science book title.
  2. ^ In the chapter, Nickel, "...on some other of those long nights were born two stories of islands and freedom, the first I felt inclined to write after...liceo..." (1984 pb edition, p. 73), and "Nor have the two mineral tales which I wrote then disappeared... The reader will find them here in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner's dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry." (ibid., p. 78)
  3. ^ "One story fantasize[s] about a remote precursor of mine, a hunter of lead instead of nickel..." ibid., p. 73
  4. ^ "...the other [story], ambiguous and mercurial, I had taken from a reference to the island of Tristan da Cunha that I happened to see during that period." ibid., p. 73
  5. ^ "Primo Levi's The Periodic Table". Retrieved 5 August 2016. 

External links[edit]