“The Most Perishable Substance on Earth”
Contemporary people sometimes assume that everything important has been invented or achieved in the past one-hundred years, and that what has been invented or achieved in the past ten thousand years has not amounted to much.
Yesterday I received a catalog of “Great Courses Taught by Great Professors,” opportunities to take courses via audio CDs or DVDs. Two in particular interested me, one on 5,000 years of Chinese History (compared to less than 250 years of history for the United States), and the other on “The History of Ancient Egypt.” The “teaser” for the Egypt course about “one of the most mysterious civilizations in history,” one that lasted 3,000 years, tells us that the Great Pyramid of Cheops was the tallest construction in the world until well into the 1800s,” and that it contains “2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing 5,000 pounds each on average. Tens of thousands of men labored to raise the tomb—but they were not slaves; they were free farmers and artisans.”
Some Lakeside residents may have visited The Smith College Museum of Ancient Inventions. It houses such fascinating and unexpected things as the Egyptian Tumbler Lock…1000 BCE; the Baghdad Battery, 250 BCE-250 CE, which uses an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder, and when filled with vinegar produces 1.1 volts, probably used for electroplating jewelry; and a steam engine, 100 CE, designed by Heron, the great inventor of Alexandria, “using a principle similar to that of today’s jet propulsion.”
John D. MacDonald, author of the popular Travis McGee mysteries, was fascinated by the odd and the unusual, and one of the delights of his novels are those informative asides that do nothing to advance the narrative but which nevertheless are so interesting that we become fascinated as well. Frequently these asides are spoken by Meyer, his philosophical pal.
In MacDonald’s The Turquoise Lament, Meyer tells us: “They’ve found ancient jewelry in tombs in the Middle East made of smelted platinum. It takes eighteen hundred degrees centigrade to melt it. Two thousand years ago, the Chinese made aluminum ornaments. Getting aluminum from bauxite is a sophisticated chemical-electrical procedure. In the Baghdad Museum you can see the parts of a dry battery which worked on the galvanic principle and generated electricity sixteen hundred years ago.
“More smelted platinum has been found in Peru, in the high country. Knowledge fades away, and some is rediscovered and some isn’t. We never seem to take the trouble to really find out—until too late. For several years the public baths at Alexandria were heated by burning the old scrolls and documents carted over from the great library. Are we so arrogant we believe that there was nothing that was burned up that hasn’t been rediscovered? I dug back only four hundred years or so. That’s easy.
“Yet I found journals which had turned to solid blocks, as if all the pages had been glued together. I found old documents so fragile I could not touch them without turning them into dust and others where the ink had faded until it was completely gone. Treasures are buried on those pages, never to be found again except by the rarest accident.
“It’s the…contemporary arrogance that bothers me. The idiot idea that we are the biggest, the greatest, the most powerful people who ever walked the earth. Know something? Think this over. I could take you to the high country of Peru, to a quarry area near Sacsahuaman, and show you where a particular block of stone was quarried and dressed, and I could show you that block of stone half a mile away. It was transported there during the time of the Incas.
“If, on the basis of national emergency, this nation were to be required to devote all its technological skills, all its wealth, and all its people to moving that block back to the quarry, we would try and we would fail, my friend. It weighs twenty thousand tons! Forty million pounds! The only time we ever move that much weight is when we let a vessel as big as the Monterey or the Mariposa slide down the ways at the shipyard, into the harbor. We have no cranes, no engines, or levers to budge that much mass. Do you think the Incas knew something mankind has since forgotten? Bet on it. Knowledge is the most priceless and most perishable substance on earth.”