Stories of Science: It’s all about the Chemistry
The incorporation of scientific knowledge is not a common convention of story writing. Probably because most writers favour subjects such as English and Social Science growing up but if included, what does science actually bring to a story?
“Nitrogen” by Primo Levi describes the escapades and setbacks of a young chemist as he aims to fulfil a customer’s request in perfecting the colour, texture and quality of his lipstick products.
Instead of overloading the reader with exhaustive chemistry theory Levi simply portrays to the reader the inspiring admiration of chemistry that the narrator posses and through this the reader is encouraged to gain an insightful admiration for chemistry.
The narrator even refers to his “chemical alter ego”, who is “so in love with digressions”, which suggests the nature of the narrator’s infatuation with chemistry. That is, it is a part of him rather than his interest.
He also talks about his chemical endeavours using phrases such as “I devoted a day to…” and “it was an adventure” which influences the reader to reconsider any pre-existing notions of chemistry being a boring job where you are stuck in a lab, pipetting one solution into another. Instead the reader is encouraged to sympathise with the trials and tribulations of the narrator like in any good novel.
Another way the narrator’s influential appreciation for chemistry is shown through his willingness to literally sort through chicken poo in order to fulfil a customer’s request in obtaining alloxan (an organic molecule which makes up 50% of bird excrement and 90% of reptile excrement). The narrator himself claims:
“The fact that alloxan, destined to embellish ladies’ lips, would come from the excrement of chickens or pythons was a thought which didn’t trouble me for a moment. The trade of chemist… teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever.”
The scientific knowledge present in the story alone is not enough for the reader to consider himself or herself an informed expert on chemistry but personally, I don’t believe that is the aim of the story. The overall goal of the interwoven science in the story is not purely educational; rather it aims to inform the reader about chemistry in everyday life that they haven’t previously considered in an interesting way that inspires them to want to know more. And isn’t that the greatest motivator to go out and learn? Simple desire?
Levi, P. (1975). The Periodic Table (R. Rosenthal, Trans.): Schocken Books.
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