What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


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The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was suppressed or ignored when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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