The Italian Jewish author and scientist lived through the worst that mankind has wrought. Now his name lives on beyond his work, and beyond the earth, in a 17-km-wide celestial body -- discovered in 1989 -- that has now officially been named planet Primol
TURIN – Ever since it was discovered in 1989 between Mars and Jupiter, the minor planet 4,545 existed without a proper name. It has one now, and it is indeed worth a closer look. The celestial body has been officially named Primolevi – one word, according to astronomy registry rules -- after the renowned Italian author and chemist, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The number 4,545 has indeed gained new meaning. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, left Auschwitz in 1945. Furthermore, he kept for the rest of his life on his arm the record number 174,517, tattooed by his Nazi captors.
Mario Di Martino, astronomer of the Observatory of Pino Torinese, had the idea to the name a minor planet after Levi. The International Astronomical Union, the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies, has now approved his proposal. The minor planet description reads: "Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian chemist and writer. He was the author of two novels and several collections of short stories, essays and poems. His best-known work is If This Is A Man, his account of the period he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp.
Minor planet Primolevi was discovered in 1989, by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne, with a telescope of the European Southern Observatory in the Andes Mountains of Chile. It is 17 kilometers in diameter, situated in the asteroid belt between March and Jupiter. It logs a five-year orbit, which has been studied in 1,084 observations – most recently on October 28, 2011. Debehogne, who died in 2007 at 78, was an astronomer at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, specialized in astrometry of asteroids and comets, and discovered more than 700 minor planets.
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The choice of name is more than a simple recognition of Levi's literary work and human suffering. The planet Primolevi is also an acknowledgment of his scientific profile. Levi, a professional chemist, in fact was passionate about astronomy and wrote often about it. He wrote articles for La Stampa about the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the moon; the first human landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969; and the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. In Levi's short story A Tranquil Star, an astronomer saw his family weekend ruined because of the explosion of a supernova which happened thousands of years before.
An article published in Scientific American on black holes and Galileo Galilei inspired Levi's poems Dark Stars and Sidereus nuncius. In News from the Sky Levi wrote that he considered the discoveries of astronomy and atomic physics as the human intellectual redemption after a 20th century of horrors of two world wars. "I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium," he wrote.
Levi's passion for astrophysics sometimes was more subtle. In the last story of his collection The Periodic Table, he wrote about the different lives and shapes of a carbon atom, which at the end was captured in a sugar molecule and provided Levi with the energy to finish his story. The carbon atom, which for a million years has remained still on a rock, Levi wrote, "has already a very long cosmic history." So too, we could say, will the author himself.
Read the original article in Italian
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