Geology Through Literature: The Periodic Table
The Periodic Table was a rich experience with the author, Primo Levi, recounting several stories within his life through the framework of elements on the Periodic Table, hence the name of the book. But here we are interested in the "geology" through literature, not chemistry, so what does this book have to offer us? Quite a bit actually. Here are some of the more geological sections.
First Chapter - Argon
"...[this] Piedmontese dialect, never written except on a bet, and the Hebrew inlay, snatched from the language of the fathers, sacred and solemn, geologic, polished smooth by the millennia like a bed of a glacier."
Although there are known instances where glaciers have moved quickly, they are generally known to have a slow pace to them. Hence the term "glacial" meaning slow. But over time, as the glacier moves, the base of the glacier defrosts and refreezes continually. This defrosting and freezing causes the base of the glacier to pick up various pieces of rocks, gravels, sand, and rock powder. These pieces of the landscape are then forced downwards by the weight of the overlying ice, which can sometimes reach many miles in thickness. These rock pieces, that are being forced downwards as the glacier moves forward, have the effect of acting like sandpaper on the surface of the Earth, slowly polishing the bedrock smooth. Over time that smoothness is ground down finer and finer. This polishing effect also produces powered rock known as glacial flour, just like sandpaper does to a piece of wood.
Sixth Chapter - Nickel
"Yes, all mines are magical per se, and always have been. The entrails of the earth swarm with gnomes, kobolds (cobalt!), nickel, German 'little demon' or 'sprite,' and from which we derive the word nickel, creatures who can be generous and let you find a treasure beneath the tip of your pickax, or deceive and bedazzle you, making modest pyrites glitter like gold, or disguising zinc in the garb of tin: and in fact, many are the minerals whose names have roots that signify 'deception, fraud, bedazzlement.'"This passage is interesting because it touches on a couple of different aspects of minerals. One is their sometimes resemblance to other, more or less important minerals. And the other is the naming of the minerals, which sometimes goes so far back in history that their original names don't have any direct correlation with what they are known for today.
|Visual comparison of Pyrite to Gold from GeorgiaGold.Com
|The mineral cobalt. From Mining.com.
|A small chunk of nickel from Live Science.
In the 1600's the Germans were at it again. This time miners were searching for copper and came across this brownish-red rock that they believed was copper. However, when they tried to extract the copper from the rock they were unsuccessful. They ended up blaming "Nickel" for the lack of copper, who was a mischievous German demon. They called the ore kupfernickel, which means "copper demon". In 1751, another Swedish scientist, Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, was able to extract the nickel from the kupfernickel ore, which was a mixture of arsenic and nickel. He ended up dropping the first part of the name and kept the "nickel" part as the name of the element and mineral.
Eighth Chapter - Mercury
"That very evening just before nightfall, we heard a great rumble of thunder, as though the island itself was being shaken to its roots. In a few minutes the sky darkened and the black cloud that covered it was lit from below as by a fire. From the top of Mount Snowdon we saw first rapid red flashes leap out and climb up into the sky, then a broad, slow stream of burning lava: it did not descend toward us but to the left, the south, pouring from ridge to ridge, hissing and crackling. After an hour it reached the sea and there it was doused with a roar, lifting up a column of vapor. None of us had ever thought that Mount Snowdon could be a volcano; and yet the shape of its summit, with a round hollow at least two hundred feet deep, could have made us us suspect this.
The spectacle continued all through the night, calming down every so often, then picking up again with a new series of explosions; it seemed that it would never end. Yet, toward dawn, a hot wind blew from the east, the sky cleared off again, and the uproar gradually died down until it was reduced to a murmur, then silence. The mantle of lava, which had been yellow and dazzling, turned reddish like smoldering coals, and by daylight it was extinguished."
|Map of Desolation Island highlighting Mount Snowdon from The Periodic Table
|Simplified map of the Mediterranean plates showing the subduction zones. From Ring et al, 2013.
However, Levi points out at the beginning of the chapter that Desolation Island is located 1,200 miles to the southeast from an island known as St. Helena. St. Helena is actually a real volcanic island that is located in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean. It's claim to fame is that it was the location of Napoleon's final exile/imprisonment and where he eventually died. Although the island is a volcano, it's last eruption was 7 million years ago, when the island was situated along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a divergent plate boundary, which means that two plates are pulling apart from each other. This pull-apart results in a very long volcanic mountain chain located beneath the oceanic surface. While most of the volcanoes remain below the surface of the ocean, some do break the surface, with St. Helena being one of those examples. Eventually the island moved along with the plate as the plate spread out from the divergent plate boundary. This movement moved the volcano away from its source of magma, making it an extinct volcano, likely never to erupt again. The type of eruption that came from St. Helena would be vastly different than the one from Pompeii as well. While Pompeii would contain an explosive eruption with lots of ash and volcanic gasses and clouds, St. Helena would more resemble a Hawaiian eruption, with a steady stream of low-viscosity lava and very little clouds.
Ring, U., Gessner, K., Thomson, S., & Markwitz, V. (2013). Along-strike variations in the Hellenide Anatolide orogen: A tale of different lithospheres and consequences. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece, 47(2), 625-636.