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Bookshelf Travelling for Even More Insane Times

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times was started by Judith and is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

The main thrust of this week’s post is to focus on books by Primo Levi.

The times Levi lived through were even more insane than these. An Italian Jew, he was rounded up in February 1944 and transported to Auschwitz, where his experience as a Chemist allowed him to gain a position as assistant in an I G Farben laboratory there. Ironically he was saved from almost certain death by being ill with scarlet fever and in the camp hospital when, on the approach of the Red Army, the SS evacuated the camp and forced the prisoners on a death march further away from the front.

He translated his experiences into a very readable series of books, nine of which are on these shelves (ten if you count This is a Man and The Truce as two.)

Primo Levi Books

Levi’s death forty years later was ruled a suicide by the coroner but he may have fallen from his flat as a result of dizziness.

This photo also shows Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, a Graham Greene omnibus, Mary Somerville‘s personal recollections in Queen of Science (which is the good lady’s and I have not yet read) plus Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits.

Where Elements Come From

I just love this.

Then again, as a chemist you would expect me to.

I got to this Periodic Table via Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for 9/8/20. It shows the origins of the chemical elements as percentages of how the total number of each elements’ atoms were formed.

Periodic Table of Elements' Origins

Those parts in blue were formed in the Big Bang or by nuclear fusion in stars, green came from dying low mass stars, pink from cosmic ray fission, yellow from the explosions of massive stars, purple from neutron stars merging, light grey in exploding white dwarf stars.

There are areas of darker gray. The elements these refer to are mostly not found naturally – Technetium (Atomic Number 43,) Promethium (Atomic Number 61) and all the transuranics (Atomic Numbers greater than 92) can be made artificially in particle colliders or nuclear bombs and reactors, though I note that Neptunium (93) and Plutonium (94) seem to be produced by merging neutron stars. All elements with Atomic Numbers greater than 82 are radioactive and so decay away over time which is why the transuranics are not found on Earth and only some atoms of elements 82-92 are.

Quite why the version of this table that appears on APOD also has elements numbered 84-89 plus 91 in dark gray puzzles me a bit.

Star Eta Carinae

This is from Astronomy Picture of the Day for 20/2/19.

Eta Carinae is set to explode in a supernova – sometime.

Eta Carinae

The unusual nebula that surrounds it puts me in mind of a one of the sets of atomic orbitals wherein electrons occur round the nucleus of an atom. Specifically a p orbital.

p orbital

The Origins of Atoms

Here’s a Periodic Table with a difference.

Yes, it lists the elements in the usual way but the information within the boxes is distinctive. It tells where the atoms of each element first came into being whether it was in the big bang – for hydrogen and hydrogen alone – or, for most elements, in stars of varying types, or else by human activity.

From Astronomy Picture of the Day for 25/1/16:-

APOD 25/1/16

Edit:- I’ve just noticed the table has helium also being produced by the big bang. I’m sure it’s made by fusion in stars, though.

William Henry Bragg Memorial Plaque

Bragg was, along with his son, Lawrence, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, which helps determine the chemical structure of solid compounds.

I found this on a wall in Market Harborough, Leicestershire:-

William Henry Bragg MemorialPlaque in Market Harborough

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Canongate, 2007, 164 p.

Not borrowed from a threatened library but returned to one of them.

 Girl Meets Boy cover

This is part of Canongate’s Myths series and is a retelling of one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses wherein Iphis (a name used for both sexes) was born a girl but on the gods’ advice is brought up by her mother as a boy as her father said they couldn’t afford a girl. As a young adult Iphis falls in love with and is set to marry Ianthe but has to appeal to the gods to resolve the dilemma of how to do this as a girl.

Told in five chapters titled “I,” “You,” “Us,” “Them,” and “All Together Now” Smith adapts this to a story of Anthea falling for Robin Goodman whom at first sight she thought, “He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen,” rapidly amending this to, “She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.”

Mixed in with this is the story of Anthea’s sister, Imogen – at first shocked by Anthea’s relationship (Oh my god my sister is A GAY,) but later reconciled to it – and both their experiences of working for a rapacious company called Pure which sells bottled water. Office politics and the vacuousness of “creative” meetings are well skewered.

Many of the scenes take place in Inverness, Smith’s birthplace, but the book’s concerns are never parochial. Smith works in an account not only – in Imogen’s trip down south – of the Englishness of England but of the many ways in which women are disadvantaged in the workplace and life generally and also provides a more satisfactory resolution to the “problem” than would have been available to Ovid. As Robin (another name used for both sexes) tells Anthea, “It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.”

The book is typographically idiosyncratic in that the author’s name on the title page, the page headers (Smith’s name on even pages and the book’s title on the odd,) the names of the dedicatees and the authors of the epigraphs are rendered in a fetching pink and as in most of Smith’s books the right hand margin is unjustified but, in this case, not in a distracting way.

This may be a short novel but it is perfectly formed, the best by Smith I have read.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (maybe it is an Inverness thing;) and in the acknowledgements, H2O (H2O.) Here Smith also seems to find it noteworthy that ‘water is bent,’ but that isn’t news to a chemist.

Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh

Orbit, 1999, 385p.

On a planet whose name we don’t learn until the seventh last line of the novel (“What a foolish thing, to name a world”) there are three kinds of things: “onworld that will fill you up but not feed you, in-between things like renndeer and potatoes that we can eat but can live on onworld things; and offworld things like dogs and people.” (In its first appearance onworld was rendered as aunworld.) The onworld life, then, can variously be eaten for sustenance, for bulk with no sustenance, or is poisonous. Its amino acids are right handed – the opposite chirality to Earth’s.

Janna of Harma clan is the titular Mission child, brought up in an appropriate technology mission in a polar area where the main source of food is herded renndeer. To trade, her clan makes whisky (spelled whiskey.) Another clan called Tekse is becoming over powerful. Tekse outrunners arrive at the Mission as the novel starts. They have rifles whereas Harma do not. The inevitable destruction of the Mission and the clan follows. In the meantime Janna has been given implants by former offworlder Wanji. These help her survive the trek to other clan grounds and her subsequent adventures wherein she manages to roam far over her home world. Early on she has to put on a dead man’s clothes as hers are ragged. To protect herself in an offworlder run refugee camp, where she subsequently takes up with a shaman, she decides to stay dressed as a man, calling herself Jan.

The novel is episodic and as a result does not feel like one story but a fix-up. For example the shaman is only present for the middle portion and may as well not have appeared in Jan’s life as far as the last chapters of the book are concerned – except in so far as Jan tries to help people affected by a plague. What stays with Jan is hir background in the clans of the north, hir middling sense of gender and hir mistrust of offworlders, though these are almost always a benign influence on hir life. (My use of the indeterminate pronoun hir.)

It did seem strange that humans would bother to travel so far that it is all but impossible to return to Earth and then display the same sorts of follies they had left behind, in many ways living worse lives in this new world. Then again that may simply be an allegory of the European migration to the Americas. We are told, though, Earth still has many problems such as pollution.

The societies Jan lives in are observed only obliquely, the only one which is fully fleshed out is the Lapp-like existence of the renndeer herding clans. McHugh’s interest in Earth’s oriental cultures (as in China Mountain Zhang) comes through, though.

Pedant’s corner:- I spotted only one typo (abut for about) but there was a “lay” for “laid”, and (twice on one page) “shined” for “shone” where shoes were not concerned.

The Sun: a Flash Spectrum

The sun gives out light across the visible spectrum (the colours of the rainbow) and beyond. We see the sun itself as yellow or red according to its position in the sky and what we experience as “white” light is made up of all the colours. If that light is passed through a prism or difraction grating it splits up into these colours.

What about when the sun’s rays are blocked?

Constantine Emmanouilidi caught a great picture of the sun’s spectrum split in this way but during an eclipse. This was Astronomy Picture of the Day for 15/11/13.

Sun's flash spectrum

Thanks to Mr Emmanouilidi for permission to copy his picture.

It was through images similar to this where a line spectrum is obtained that the chemical element helium was discovered in the sun’s atmosphere before it was isolated on Earth.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Curious Lives of the Elements, Viking, 2011, 428 p.

The first thing to say is that, despite its title(s), this is not a Chemistry book. In its index there are eight references to Shakespeare (only one fewer than for the chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius and more than for any individual scientist barring Humphry Davy, Carl Scheele, William Ramsay, Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev) – four to Goethe, three each to Wagner and Van Gogh. Other seemingly unlikely name checks are given to Wilfred Owen and Barbara Hepworth, not to mention Hunter S Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

What it is, is a book about how Chemistry permeates our lives, not just in the biological sense – for without Chemistry our bodies could not work – but in the cultural sphere, in our day-to-day existence. (There is even a reference to Irn Bru! – in a frankly bizarre context.) As such the book ought to appeal to the general reader rather than just Chemists. But the importance of Chemistry in painting, sculpture, opera, poetry, fiction, even architecture ought not to surprise. As the back of the book reminds us, “Everything is made of them [the elements,] from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book you are holding in your hands, including you.” English words for white (apart from snow) are bound up with the compounds of calcium they embody, marble, alabaster, chalk, ivory, bone, teeth. (I object, here, that the “White Cliffs of Dover” are anything but; unless seen from a distance.) The Latin calx yields the Italian calcio for what Aldersey-Williams calls soccer, perhaps because a goal is scored by the ball crossing a chalked line. The word for railway in nearly every language except English reflects the iron from which it is constructed, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn, ferrovia, vía fería, järnväg, tetsudou. Akin to gold in its chemical unreactivity, the valuation of platinum – the only element first isolated by pre-Columbian Americans – over gold is a cultural choice; not due to rarity but snobbishness.

The book contains photographic illustrations every so often but they can at times be a little indistinct as they are reproduced only in monochrome.

Like his Swedish compatriot Carl Scheele (who has a fair claim to have discovered oxygen) Jöns Jacob Berzelius is all but forgotten – despite pioneering laboratory staples like filter paper and (the now superseded) rubber tubing for connecting laboratory equipment together, first using the words catalysis and protein, inventing chemical symbology and coming up with the idea that elements combined in fixed proportions and hence chemical formulae. If his name had been attached to these as Bunsen’s was to his – admittedly splendid – invention that might not be the case. But it seems the Swedes were/are reticent about blowing their trumpets. Due to their chemists’ wielding of an essential piece of technology – the blow-pipe – no less than seven elements – ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, erbium, holmium, scandium and tantalum – were identified from ores that came from a single mine near the town of Ytterby but there is now no trace of the mine nor is there a visitor’s centre. The Swedes may be missing a trick there.

Discovery of “new” elements has always to an extent depended on available technology. Better furnaces and higher temperatures explain the historical progression of metal extraction through the Bronze and Iron Ages and the isolation of zinc in India by the 13th century, the alkali metals, highly reactive and thus resistant to chemical extraction, were only torn from their compounds by the greater power of electricity – not harnessed till just before 1800 – the spectroscope enabled elements to be inferred from the incursion of additional lines in the resultant spectra, transuranics could only be synthesised when atom–colliding machines became available. New liquefaction techniques allowed William Ramsay in the 1890s to conjure new elements out of thin air. (Well, since it was liquefied, I suppose it was really thick air.) Ramsay populated a whole previously unknown Periodic Table Group, the noble gases – neon et al – using this method.

Aldersey-Williams has a tendency to employ the words light or heavy instead of low/high density respectively and to refer to an element when strictly it is the presence of its compounds, atoms or ions that is under discussion. Plus he infers ozone is bonded in a triangle. Its atoms may be arranged in a triangle but its bonds are not. He also says “sodium is now the colour of the city at night” as well as “our principal means of knowing this element.” My local street may be “lit from above by the sodium lamps,” but these have been largely replaced by the blueish white of mercury vapour lights on main roads.

He has however written an interesting and informative, at times quirky, book.

The Criterion for Phenomena

I’ve just watched the third of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy’s television series Precision: The Measure of All Things on BBC 4.

There’s a lot been going on at Son of the Rock Towers over the past week or two (details may be forthcoming in due course) so I missed the first two episodes, Time and Distance and Mass and Moles – which is a pity as the second at least will have been about Chemistry – and I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to catch up on them.

Tonight’s last in the series was titled Heat, Light and Electricity and discussed how ways to measure these phenomena have been developed and extended over time.

du Sautoy irritated me though by using the word phenomena as if it were singular. I now quote Wikipedia:-

Phenomena are observable events, particularly when they are special.

A single observable event is of course a phenomenon.

The same distinction applies to the word criterion – like phenomenon, based on Greek – and its plural where too many people, especially news reporters, refer to a criteria. It makes me cringe.

In sum, the only criterion for using the word phenomena is that more than one event is involved. If there’s only a single event then it’s a phenomenon.

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