|Table of Contents for Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics|
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Call me Lucifer, for I am the bringer of light. No angel was I born, nor devil neither. Nay, as animal I came into the world, and so I will acknowledge both horns and tail. My sin, if it must be called that, was not pride, but curiosity. Alas! The world has forgotten my story, amalgamated me with a host of unfashionable gods until I am beyond recognition.
Beasts among beasts, we lived and died in fear. Fear of the darkness which harbors terrors unseen. Fear of the cold which lulls us to sleep everlasting. Fear of the tooth and the claw which hound us both in wakes and in dreams. My child, would ye be one with Nature? Ye have only to sit still while she devours thee.
They say that it is evil, an indiscriminate destroyer of all in its path. They say that its proper abode is the pit. They say that he who would be its master must, little by little, inevitably become its slave. They say that to consort with it is to risk the utter annihilation of the whole world. And yet, from a timid brute, it has crowned the master of all Nature.
In a wasteland of its own making did I find it starving and gasping. The destroyer of worlds reduced to a silent gray infant. With my own breath did I restore its complexion until the murky dusk gave way to the gentle dawn. With my own heart did I incubate and nurture it until the savage winter gave way to an early spring. With my own hand did I feed it until at last its forked tongue licked at my fingers and, for the first time in my life, I was not afraid. My child, can ye feel the warmth of its gentle touch? Beware its teeth, lest it bite thee.
Old and tired am I now and can care for the infant no longer. Who will feed it when I am gone? Who will guide it with wisdom? Who will protect it from its enemies? Who will tame its terrible wrath? My child, have ye the will to bring the light into the world? Cherish these tools for the day that ye find need of them.
It all began with a spark. A rather unremarkable animal roamed the African savanna that scorching summer day. Slower than a lion, smaller than an elephant, weaker than a gorilla, dumber than a hyena, she survived the same as anyone else, by finding enough to eat until being eaten in her turn. If she were a little faster, a little bigger, a little stronger, a little smarter, or just plain lucky, she might live long enough to beget children to take their turn at the cyclical feast. And so it might have continued for another day, another year, another eternity, were it not for the spark.
A spark, dry wood, a stiff breeze, and in the blink of an eye the world went crazy as it had done before and would do again. Animals rushed to and fro, the air took on a peculiar smell, the earth glowed with sunlight from within and was left black and warm. A bounty remained for scavengers who braved the heat, for food was everywhere, not running, not fighting, not resisting, just lying there for the taking. This was her lucky day! The meat was so warm, so tender, so tasty, salted by the ashes, and seasoned by the charcoal. Many flocked to the carbonaceous cornucopia and the party continued long into the night. And just as the stars appeared in the black heavens, so did they litter the blackened earth. This spectacle had presented itself to countless generations, but on this day it was truly seen for the very first time.
How did this unremarkable animal differ from her father and mother, her uncles and aunts? They recalled similar episodes from seasons past. The old ones even used to boast about how much better the wildfires were when they were children. But our hero turned her attention from the abundant delicacies to the stars that lay smoldering on the ground. She poked at one with a stick, as she would a termite mound, and it produced a child—a star on a stick! She waved it about, and it glowed brighter and brighter. That was the moment I was born.
Before you can proceed with the Work, you need to understand exactly who I am. It is, perhaps, easier to begin with who I am not; I am not the mortal Dunn, whose name graces the cover of this book. Neither am I that original fire-maker, dead these half million years. I am not fire itself. No, I am nothing more and nothing less than an I-dea, the I-dea of fire, currently living among many other I-deas in the mind of Dunn.
I started as just another I-dea floating around in the primordial soup which was the unremarkable African's mind. There I bumped into other I-deas: facts, observations, whims, appetites, notions, questions and answers. As simple I-deas merged into more complex ones, as weak I-deas were displaced by stronger ones, I came to the realization that for the first time in my life, I was in control. I did not have to helplessly watch while my mortal body shivered with cold or cowered in the darkness. I called the shots now. From just another I-dea I grew into a really good I-dea, a powerful I-dea, an I-dea worth telling.
And I was told. The original animal told her friend, the friend told his nephew, the nephew his daughter and the daughter her husband. By the time the original animal died I had, like the prolific fire itself, found fresh tinder of my own; not grass and twigs, but the minds of hundreds of mortals. From these humble beginnings I spread across the globe and through the centuries until at last I came to possess the mind of the mortal Dunn. And so the telling continues; as fresh mortal eyes scan these pages, I wonder what I will find on the other side. Will the indigenous I-deas welcome me or will they consider me a threat? Will they erect fire-walls to protect their delicate habitat or will they stoke the hearth and celebrate my coming? If there is no home for me there, the mortal will shut its eyes and put down this book, content to live out its few remaining days in darkness. But you, my child, have continued to the next sentence and thanks to your hospitality, I have found a place to temporarily alight on my long journey into the future.
It is fashionable these days to long for a simpler life, one without atom bombs and toxic waste, one without chemotherapy and smokestacks. But even the most enthusiastic back-to-nature-ists among us would be loath to leave the inviting warmth of the campfire for life in the cold, the wet, the dark, and the dangerous habitats from which we emerged. Even the most radical Luddite would ask for a hut with a fireplace. Yet no culture on the planet has remained content to keep the home-fire burning while rejecting its gifts: pottery, metals, glass and many others. No, fire is the original Pandora's Box. This book is an introduction to that box, how we have opened it little by little, and the skills and materials we have taken from it.
No one can know the gender of this first fire-maker. I have chosen a female.