Review of The wrench by Primo Levi published by Abacus Books (1988)
Some years ago I reviewed another of Levi's books, The Periodic Table (Palmer, 1988), (now in my Amazon reviews). I was so impressed with his writing for its relevance to us as science teachers, that I will now review another of his books. The Wrench is a collection of stories, some of which relate to chemistry, but this time there is Faussone, a rigger, the man of action or "Homo faber" and the author (Levi), the chemist who is the thinker and narrator. They meet in a factory in a distant country, and are thrown together through the common language and common experience of being Italian. They start to converse and tell each other stories in the mess: we are the privileged listeners. Again as in The Periodic Table a number of the stories seem autobiographical and they gain realism and coherence from this personal input, whilst others are about the hard tough life of being a rigger, a man who personally puts together large cranes partly through his physical strength, but also through his knowledge skill and experience. Faussone is an expert in his field. Later in the book the two men start to relate to the other's experience of life and the analogies are then of great interest to chemists. The chemist in synthesizing new molecules acts like a rigger. In fact Levi says:-
But we are still blind... . blind and we don't have those tweezers we often dream of at night, the way a thirsty man dreams of springs, that would allow us to pick up a segment, hold it firm and straight, and paste it in the right direction on the segment that has already been assembled. If we had those tweezers (and it's possible that, one day, we will), we would have managed to create some wonderful things But for the present we don't have those tweezers, and when we come right down to it, we're bad riggers.
(The Wrench, p.144)
It is interesting to note that Von Baeyer in his recent book (Von Baeyer, 1992) needs to use the analogy in this passage to differentiate the aims of chemists and physicists in investigating the fine structure of matter. In other words, Levi manages to express in his novels something about the nature of chemistry and chemists that it is difficult to explain in any other way. It is for that reason that I believe that this novel is of importance in the education of any science teacher or scientist.
Palmer, W.P. 1988 Review of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, in The Australian Science Teachers' Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May), pp.91-92.
Von Baeyer, H.C. (1992). Taming the atom: the emergence of the visible Microworld. London: Viking/Penguin Books Ltd, p.129.
Originally published as Palmer W. P. (1994). A Review of 'The Sixth Day' &' The Wrench' both by Primo Levi, Abacus Books, The Australian Science Teachers' Journal Issue 133, Vol 40, No 2, pp.81-82