The Periodic Table (short story collection)

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The Periodic Table
First edition
AuthorPrimo Levi
Original titleIl sistema periodico
TranslatorRaymond Rosenthal
Cover artistM. C. Escher
GenreShort stories
PublisherEinaudi (Italian)
Schocken Books (English)
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
The elements that are titles of the stories.

The Periodic Table (Italian: Il sistema periodico) is a 1975 short story collection by Primo Levi, 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 based on the author's experiences as a Jewish-Italian doctoral-level chemist under the Fascist regime in Italy and afterwards. They include various themes that follow 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.

Each of the twenty-one stories in the book bears the name of a chemical element as its title and has a connection to the element in some way.


  1. "Argon" – The author's childhood, 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 author's adolescence, between the racial laws and the Alps
  5. "Potassium" – An experience in the laboratory with unexpected results
  6. "Nickel" – Inside the chemical laboratories of a mine
  7. "Lead" – The narrative of a primitive metallurgist (fiction)[3]
  8. "Mercury" – A tale of populating a remote and desolate island (fiction)[4]
  9. "Phosphorus" – An experience on 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 on a job in the chemical industry (apparently fiction)
  14. "Titanium" – A scene of daily life (apparently fiction)
  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. ^ Randerson, James (21 October 2006). "Levi's memoir beats Darwin to win science book title". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  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 paperback, 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." (1984 paperback, p. 78)
  3. ^ "One story fantasize[s] about a remote precursor of mine, a hunter of lead instead of nickel...." 1984 paperback, 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." 1984 paperback, p. 73
  5. ^ "Primo Levi's The Periodic Table". Retrieved 5 August 2016.

See also[edit]