The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi Page A

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Authors: Primo Levi
did not get anywhere: nothing concentrated; in all the fractions the percentage of nickel remained obstinately the same as the first. Nature was not helping us: we concluded that the nickel accompanying the bivalent iron took its place vicariously, followed it like an evanescent shadow, a minuscule brother: 0.2 percent of nickel, 8 percent of iron. All the reagents imaginable for nickel should have been employed in doses forty times greater, even without taking into account the magnesium. An economically desperate enterprise. At moments of weariness I perceived the rock that encircled me, the green serpentine of the Alpine foothills, in all its sidereal, hostile, extraneous hardness: in comparison, the trees of the valley, by now already dressed for spring, were like us, also people who do not speak but feel the heat and the frost, enjoy and suffer, are born and die, fling out pollen with the wind, obscurely follow the sun in its travels. Not the rock: it does not house any energy, it is extinguished since primordial times, pure hostile passivity; a massive fortress that I had to pull down bastion by bastion to get my hands on the hidden sprite, the capricious kupfernickel which jumps out now here, now there, elusive and malign, with long perked ears, always ready to flee from the blows of the investigating pickax, leaving you with nothing to show for it.
    But this is no longer the time for sprites, nickel, and kobolds. We are chemists, that is, hunters: ours are “the two experiences of adult life” of which Pavese spoke, success and failure, to kill the white whale or wreck the ship; one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this—to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it. My weekly conversations with the lieutenant sounded like war plans.
    Among the many attempts we had made there also was that of reducing the rock with hydrogen. We had placed the mineral, finely ground, in a porcelain boat; had placed this in turn in a quartz tube; and through the tube, heated from the outside, we had pushed a current of hydrogen in the hope that this would strip the oxygen bound to the nickel and leave it reduced, that is, naked, in its metallic state. Metallic nickel, like iron, is magnetic, and therefore, according to this hypothesis, it would have been easy to separate it from the rest, alone or with the iron, simply by means of a small magnet. But, after the treatment, we had vainly agitated a powerful magnet in the watery suspension of our powder: we had only gotten a trace of iron. Clear and sad: hydrogen, under these conditions, did not reduce anything; the nickel, together with the iron, must be firmly lodged in the serpentine’s structure, combined with the silicate and water, satisfied (so to speak) with its state and averse to assuming another.
    But say one tried to pull that structure apart. The idea came to me as one switches on a light, one day when by chance there fell into my hands an old dusty diagram, the work of some unknown predecessor of mine; it showed the loss of weight in the mine’s asbestos as a function of temperature. The asbestos lost a little water at 150° centigrade, then remained apparently unaltered until about 800° centigrade; here one noted an abrupt step down with a fall in weight of 12 percent, and the author had remarked: “becomes fragile.” Now serpentine is the father of asbestos: if asbestos decomposes at 800° centigrade, serpentine should do so also; and, since a chemist does not think, indeed does not live, without models, I idly went about representing them for myself, drawing on paper long chains of silicon, oxygen, iron, and magnesium, with a little nickel caught between their links, and then the same chains

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