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April 27, 2012 / NicolaRuprecht

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’s enthusiasm is constructed through Levi’s use of persuasive language. For example, he relates the chemical structure of the organic molecule alloxan to the simple, symmetrical beauty of a “solid, stable” architectural achievement such as the dome roof of a cathedral or the arch of a bridge.

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?

Reference:

Levi, P. (1975). The Periodic Table (R. Rosenthal, Trans.): Schocken Books.

(Click Here to access the text.)

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8 Comments

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  1. tahliajade / Apr 27 2012 8:50 am

    Great post! I loved the title. Very fitting and good play on words.

    Let’s face it, chemistry will probably never be one of those subjects that the everyday person will cheer over. Haha. I agree with you that the aim of the story is not necessarily to educate people in chemistry because the information is not as in depth as you would expect if that was the idea behind the works. Also, personally, if I was the author, I would feel that the potential popularity of the piece would be compromised if it was written purely for educational purposes and may find that detrimental to my writing career.

    I think that they are presenting chemical based information in a new light to make it entertaining. The mention of chicken excrement being used in women’s lipstick was shocking and I think this shock will ensure that at least a few readers will endeavour to find out whether that is true or not…including myself haha. (I may never wear it again :/ )

    If they can motivate readers to seek further knowledge in the area of chemistry, I think many other areas of study could evoke a desire for further information if presented in the same way. Very interesting read, both yours and Primo Levi’s 🙂

  2. caitiedunlap / Apr 27 2012 10:46 am

    As this post and this topic discusses and I managed to illustrate, when choosing topics for the blog posts I immediately looked past it thinking ‘Ew, chemistry.. why would I want to write about that’. However now reading this it actually seems very interesting and something I would want to read in my spare time.

    I think when communicating science this is the best way to do it. Don’t explain the fancy complicated technical jargon but make it into relatible and interesting information. As you said like the dome, or the lipstick these are things you wouldnt get from a normal chemistry book but we learn and probably remember more when it is not talking about structures and polymers, but lipstick and chicken excrement.

    I think youve done an awesome job and written a very easy to read piece. Good job!

  3. muza2009 / Apr 30 2012 11:31 pm

    Great post! You have done Primo Levi justice. The entire book, The Periodic Table, devotes each chapter to elements in the periodic table, well worth a read on incorporating chemistry within a story.

  4. selinamj / May 1 2012 1:57 pm

    This was really interesting. I think, like you said, this book aims to fulfil a certain purpose and it isn’t to give the reader a comprehensive knowledge of chemistry and its intricate detail.
    It does well to spur interest and make chemistry accessible for people to read in a casual setting. However I imagine that there would be limitations at reaching a broad audience, as people who have minimal interest in science or dislike the idea of chemistry are unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. Unfortunately this would be a great audience to reach as it may spark new interest and encourage further research. In reality I fell that the main audience are people who would already have an interest in the subject and read it purely for entertainment and pleasure.
    If it fell into the right, unassuming hands it does have potential to create new interest.

    • NicolaRuprecht / May 2 2012 12:05 pm

      That is such a great point! I didn’t even consider what type of person would pick up the book in the first place. Since the target audience does seem to include those who don’t have such a vast knowledge of chemistry, perhaps the title of the novel should be something a little more subtle? Personally I find “The Periodic Table” a little boring and gives me the impression that the book is more conventional educational, filled with numbers and facts like a textbook. Which would deter me from picking it up, especially if I had very little knowledge of chemistry.

  5. tobiasgrey / May 2 2012 11:35 am

    I’ve read about this book before, and I think it’s a wonderful idea – giving all the different elements stories and ‘personalities’. It adds an emotional investment to what would otherwise be emotionless, invisible dots with impersonal physical properties.
    For a child or student new to chemistry, it provides a lovely backing and even for a chemistry professor it provides both entertainment and a nifty mnemonic device to pass on to students and friends.

  6. rhiandyer / May 4 2012 6:50 am

    Your blog was excellent but I find stories weaved into science distracting and frustrating…..

    That was what I started writing before I thought “well I suppose there is still an hour before my blog comment is due so I might as well go and read the chapter”.

    But I actually really liked this book, particularly when it came to describing the alloxan molecule. Having referred to the beauty industry, when the author came to describing this molecule as beautiful, solid and well linked, I started seeing the molecule as a necklace. But for someone with no knowledge of science, there were some really solid fundamentals here that was not the type of information that you know the reader will just forget (the way elements make up atoms and how to ‘read molecular diagrams’, not particularly the structure of alloxan).

    I agree it that it might make someone want to go out and learn more, something as simple as knowing all the components on that diagram would make chemistry look a lot less intimidating.

  7. sthompson / May 4 2012 9:51 am

    I love the opening of your post, and completely agree!!

    “The incorporation of scientific knowledge is not a common convention of story writing.”

    I look at this in two ways. There is the perspective you’ve taken, about what the science brings to the story, and then there is also what the story does for the science.

    I think the intent behind the story has a lot to do with it. What I mean by this is that it would make quite a difference if it were written as an entertainment story, and a bit of science added to it to give the reader something extra, than if it were to be written to get the science knowledge out there, and put in this particular format to increase it’s impact on the audience. Of course these are the extremes, and I think it’s somewhere in the middle of the two. Not meant specifically to educate, but to get people to know a bit more, and make it relatable and interesting.

    I think your post flowed really well, and was very easy and interesting to read, good work! 🙂

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