Wednesday 31 July 2013

Primo Levi

Primo Levi would have been celebrating his 94th birthday today if he hadn't died in 1987.  The coroner's assessment was that he had committed suicide which was strangely counter-intuitive for one whose will to live had brought him through a year in Auschwitz.  His pal and fellow scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini dismissed the verdict with a call to reason "If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed."

I've mentioned Primo Levi before briefly along with his most scientific book The Periodic Table.  If you haven't read it and you think you're a scientist then you should get it out of the library this very weekend.  Even if you're from the Arts Block, I recommend it for the writing alone.  I'll be mining the Periodic Table extensively in the future (so skip the library and stay tuned to The Blob over the next 12 months) but I'll share one telling anecdote here.

Levi was working in a paint factory tasked with modifying the chemical protocols so that the quality of the product stayed the same even when the basic ingredients were sourced from different suppliers.  One day he looked at a card with a recipe and noted that it required him to add 23 drops of a particular reagent to the brew.  The instruction brought him up standing because 23 is precise (not 22 or 25) but a 'drop' is an imprecise amount.  Intrigued he went to the cupboard where previous protocols were stored.  When a protocol needed to be changed it was written out on a new index-card and the old one was relegated to this archive.  Riffling back through the deck of cards he saw that "2-3 drops" had morphed into "23 drops" in one of these transitions some months previously.

Knowing when to follow the protocol because we can't be always reinventing the wheel and when to question what everyone agrees on, is the difference between a scientist and a technician.  Salve Primo!

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