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Science & Writing: Carbon, Life Biosphere

Science & Writing: Carbon, Life Biosphere

A creative writing workshop.

Our story in the face of the Climate Emergency

This creative writing workshop brings together natural scientists and humanities scholars from Newcastle University, lecturers and students alike. It is an invitation to revisit Levi’s famous story Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975) 50 years  after it was written and discuss its narrative structure, its scientific implications, and its historical background.

Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975)

Primo Levi’s autobiographical novel Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975) has often been regarded as the best science book ever written. Its final chapter, ‘Carbon’, is the most celebrated of the 21 chapters, each one featuring an element from the periodic table that Levi relates to specific phases of his life. ‘Carbon’ tells the life story of a carbon atom that had been locked in a limestone for hundreds of millions of years before it was released during quarry works in the 1840s. The carbon atom works its way through several plants and animals, circles the Earth numerous times and ends up in a glass of milk that the author himself is drinking while writing the very chapter we are reading. The carbon atom enters his bloodstream and the brain cell that finally leads his pen when he puts the full stop on the page that concludes the book.

And yet it is exactly to this carbon that I have an old debt, contracted during what for me were decisive days. To carbon, the element of life, my first literary dream was turned... yes, I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon.

Levi, 1975

The carbon atom is a literary hero with minimal qualities. And yet, it becomes the central agent of life, perpetually traversing the boundary between biotic and abiotic. In doing so, it rejuvenates life. Towards the end of the chapter Levi quips that this story is most certainly true: there are so many carbon atoms in the biosphere that any carbon life story our imagination is capable of crafting would be a true story of life

The Initiative

We want to take ‘Carbon’ as an inspiration to write our own carbon story in the light of the climate emergency, the second Great Acceleration since 1989, and the rise of artificial photosynthesis.

We will be guided and assisted by Linda France, Newcastle-based poet and environmental writer, and Professor Jens Söntgen, chemist and philosopher, director of the Environmental Science Centre of Augsburg University (Germany).

This is an event by the Decisive Decade initiative, hosted by the Newcastle University Humanities Research Centre (NUHRI) and the Anthropocene Research Group.

Indicative timeline:

25th of April

The Call

Send out call for participants.

31st of May


Introductory Meeting with Linda in person and Jens on Zoom.

10th of June


Applications close and group selected.

Induction Week


First session.

Late October


Presentation of creative work to coincide with the event hosting keynote speaker Stephen Gardiner.

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences