Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table has come up on this program before. Levi’s autobiography with a distinctly chemical perspective has influenced generations of students, scientists, and writers. What might not be immediately evident, if you haven’t read it, is that Levi didn’t look at every element on the periodic table. He selected 21 elements, each related to a different short story. Argon, lead, arsenic, vanadium, and others are the stars of each, with carbon taking the spotlight for the final chapter.
Illustrator John Barnett has zoomed in even further, focusing only on this last element in his new book, Carbon: One Atom’s Odyssey. Taking inspiration from that last chapter of Levi’s book, Barnett follows one atom of element 6 across millions of years. While Levi did so in words, Barnett makes this trek a visual one, illustrating each step of the way, appropriately enough, with pencil-drawn illustrations.
Some of these pages will look familiar to listeners of this program; for instance, in the skeletons of coccolithophores or pouring forth from a smokestack. Narration accompanies a few of these illustrations, but just as often they speak for themselves. It lends to a meditative feel, encouraging the reader to take their time until the story winds up at a most appropriate ending.
Carbon: One Arom’s Odyssey will be available from No Starch Press starting Tuesday, May 18: