|Table of Contents for Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics|
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Well, that's pretty much it. We started out in the Stone Age making fire and stone tools. Those ancient skills passed down from generation to generation, gathering like-minded skills along the way, pottery and string and potash and such. The skills got more and more sophisticated with metals, lime, dyes, glass, paper, alcohol, gunpowder, and soap. Demand for these things spawned the earliest of what we would recognize as chemical industries, acid and soda. Once these were established, innovations in dyes and photography expanded the breadth of chemical offerings, while a new soda industry rose from the ashes of the old. The batteries of the nineteenth century gave birth to the electrochemical industries of the twentieth. Finally, the chemical giants of the twenty-first century rose from humble beginnings in alkalis, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and plastics.
All these skills and inspirations started out as tiny little thoughts which were fruitful and multiplied over thousands of years. They've drifted from place to place, from person to person, from age to age, until finally they landed in this book. From there they took off one more time as you read along until they landed in your head, where they must have found a decent home or else you wouldn't have gotten all the way to the Epilogue. And now they're as much a part of you as they are of me.
Most folks have the urge to reproduce. Some do it genetically by having children; others do it memetically by transmitting their thoughts to others. Of course, some do it both ways. It seems to me that since you've read this book, and since its ideas have become a part of you, one of the easiest ways of reproducing at least part of yourself is to tell folks about it. Get them to buy a copy, or buy it yourself and give it to them, or tell your librarian to buy—
Of all the nerve! I'd recognize that money-grubbing, web-spinning, earthifying voice anywhere. Did you honestly think you could pass yourself off as the Author?
I got tired of waiting for him to show up. Besides, that's what he would have said if he'd been here. He spent all this time writing the book; it would be a shame if nobody ever bought it.
I think I would have been a bit more subtle than that. Buying the book is not sufficient. Reading the book is not sufficient. People are all too willing to believe what they read, deceiving themselves with a delusion of understanding. Whether dogma comes from royal decrees, fanciful philosophies, prophetic visions, or university lectures, I am sick with the human tragedy I have witnessed because people were too cowed by authority to believe the evidence of their own eyes. And so it has not been my intention to write a mere textbook to be parroted uncritically by yet another generation of timid sheep. You are fortunate, indeed, to live in a time and a place where it is permissible to believe what you see, rather than see only what you believe. You damn yourself to live in the worst kind of darkness, however, if you are too lazy to get your hands—
—black with charcoal? Busted!
You still refuse to understand, Figment. There is no "Author" out there. There is only the Furnace, fueled with I-deas from Above and from Below, which must keep in the heat and withstand it. It is the duty of the Furnace to separate the earth by fire, the fine from the gross, gently and with great skill. That which is Above must correspond to that which is Below in the accomplishment of the miracle of One Thing.
You do realize that nobody understood a word of what you just said. But I suppose the "Author" will jump in any minute to dribble out a watery, if poorly-disguised interpretation.
That would be sacrilege! But if you need an interpretation, I think that our diabolical friend is speaking metaphorically about the nature of science. The "Miracle of One Thing" is the correspondence between theory and experiment, the Above and the Below. A theory which is incompatible with experiment must be discarded, burned off in the furnace, so to speak. On the other hand, observation provides only a superficial kind of understanding; theory is what renders a set of experiments comprehensible. And as a theory becomes more and more comprehensive, accommodating more and more experiments, the distinction between theory and experiment blurs to the point that they become One Thing. The elementary nature of charcoal, for example, was hypothetical in the late eighteenth century, but has been tested so many times and under such diverse conditions that chemists today treat it as a virtual fact.
The same kind of thing goes on in industry, when you think about it. Folks start out trying to make stuff by some roundabout, inefficient method. Every once in a while somebody figures out a better, and by that I mean cheaper way to make either the same thing or something better. The earth gets separated by fire, the fine from the gross, gently and with great skill. We make gold from lead and turn a tidy profit into the bargain.
It always comes down to the bottom line for you. What about the environment?
The environment, the Earth, is part of that bottom line. When folks complain about pollution there's a cost that has to be factored in; laws have to be followed, lawsuits settled, factories de-pollutified. It would be nice if we could know in advance what folks are going to complain about. It would be nice if we could skip the crude, inefficient processes and jump right to the clean, efficient ones where everything that comes into the process leaves as some safe and useful product, but that would be a job for a fortune-teller, not a fortune-maker.
There's more to life than making a fortune; there's a human element that often gets lost among the theories and experiments, the mind and body, the sulfur and salt. That's why the Author chose to begin each chapter with spirit, with Mercury, with stories to motivate and animate the dry equations and facts. After all, we're all mortal; the brain-waves eventually go flat and the body starts to stink. What's left in the end but a story? The choices you make along the way determine whether your particular story will be worth telling when you're gone.
It is so easy to compose a boring, generic story as you dribble inexorably from the cradle to the grave. You are born to average parents, go to the usual schools, get a typical job; you marry a suitable mate, pop out average children, send them to the usual schools, retire at the typical age, and check into the Sunset Old People's Home for your generic geriatric golden years. When you are gone there is nothing to say, really, but that you lived an average life. Since not everyone gets to be an astronaut or pop star, most people can only hope to juice up their otherwise uneventful stories; perhaps you read unpopular books, listen to unusual music, travel to atypical vacation spots, or choose an out-of-the-ordinary hobby. There was once a caveman chemist, for example, who went to meet his significant other's parents for the first time. You can imagine what a tense, though generic situation that must have been. It is a scene which has been played out from the dawn of time, on every continent, in every age. But this was a family of home-brewers, who offered to lubricate the conversation with a couple of bottles of the good stuff. Well, our caveman jumped right in with observations about the optimum honey concentration for dry mead, an enthusiastic appreciation for the relative merits of raw and cooked must, and humorous anecdotes about the asexual exploits of Red Star Quick-Rise yeasts. The generic situation was transmuted into a story worth telling.
There was this other caveman who wanted to propose to his girlfriend, but he didn't want to do it in the usual way. He took some of his hand-made paper and drew a treasure map on it. He sealed it in a hand-made envelope and slipped it into the basket as they headed off for a picnic. At the end of a pleasant meal she found the map and followed it over the babbling brook, through the piney woods, under the overpass, over the underpass, to the old oak tree with the knot hole that looked kind of like Elvis. There, on Elvis' third left molar was a box and in that box was a ring. It gives me the sniffles just thinking about it. I mean, what a way to set yourself apart from the competition!
Well, what about the caveman who got the kids involved in soap-making? They learned from an early age the importance of chemical safety. They got to see where something as common as soap comes from and they were able to spend quality time doing something together other than watching "reality" television. They made soap from bacon fat; they made soap with bay leaves in it. They made green soap, liquid soap, transparent soap. They made their own caustic soda from the ashes of the fire they used to melt the fat. They produced gifts for every occasion and were known far and wide as the cleanest family in town.
Touching. Then there was the one whose airplane went down over the pacific. He managed to float to a desert island where he was stranded for years. Fortunately he had learned well the lesson of Lucifer and was able to make fire by friction. In fact, he made everything he needed from the flotsam and jetsam he found on the island. The experience would have cracked most people but—
Well, I found your stories rather bland. A story worth telling is grounded in salt, in conflict, in the central problem posed to the protagonist. Without salt, you get the gripping saga of a family in the throes of making soap happily ever after. Salt, however, is merely the beginning of a properly-seasoned story. Salt must be tempered by sulfur, by the internal logic of the story, by the laws which govern its universe. A castaway might, for example, have magical powers or a time machine or a genie with which to address his problem and the story would unfold differently in each of these alternate realities. Salt and sulfur are thrust upon the protagonist; they represent incidental and cosmic realities over which he has no control. What would you do in his situation? Within the boundaries set by salt and sulfur, the castaway can only provide mercury, the spirit with which he will face his reality. Will he scavenge the clothing of the corpse which washes ashore or will he bury it intact? Will he seek the shelter of a cave or the vantage of a cliff? Will he try for the hundredth time to light a fire or content himself to shiver in the darkness like an animal? A thousand I-deas would produce a thousand different stories, most of them mind-numbingly dull. It is the job of the screenwriter to choose the mercury which will make the story worth telling. It is your job, as well. Herein have I completely explained the Operation of the Sun.