A Carbon Atom’s Journey
Primo Levi is best known for his writings as an Auschwitz survivor, but integral to his world view was his training and lifelong work as a chemist. Levi’s magnificent chemical memoir, The Periodic Table, culminates with the chapter “Carbon,” reserved for last because, in contrast to the other elements, carbon “says everything to everyone.” In this Master Class, we will follow Levi’s carbon atom from geologic origins in a limestone quarry, into the gaseous state within a molecule of carbon dioxide, pass “through the narrow door of photosynthesis” into the six-membered ring of glucose, be consumed and metabolized, and ultimately arrive at a “most secret” destination, forming part of the storyteller’s very consciousness. We will relate our carbon atom’s journey to topics of great societal importance. Our “organic adventure” will also include an illustrative hands-on laboratory activity.
Christian M. Rojas is Professor of Chemistry at Barnard College, where he has taught since 1997. A synthetic organic chemist, his research interests involve reactions that introduce nitrogen atoms into three-dimensionally complex molecular structures, particularly carbohydrates. In his teaching, Rojas wants to help students understand a chemist’s fascination with the molecular-scale world, highlighting the organic chemistry of biological processes and making occasional connections to poetry and literature. He received Barnard’s student-selected Emily Gregory Teaching Award in 2013 and most recently edited the book Molecular Rearrangements in Organic Synthesis, published in 2015.