|Table of Contents for Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics|
|<<< Previous||Next >>>|
formatis igitur Dominus Deus de humo cunctis animantibus terrae et universis volatilibus caeli adduxit ea ad Adam ut videret quid vocaret ea omne enim quod vocavit Adam animae viventis ipsum est nomen eius
Or Jéhovah Dieu formait du sol toute bête sauvage des champs, et toute créature volante des cieux, et il se mit à les amener vers l'homme pour voir comment il appellerait chacun [d'elles]; et comme l'appelait l'homme—chaque âme vivante—c'était là son nom.
End uat uf thi gruand thi Lurd Gud furmid iviry biest uf thi foild, end iviry fuwl uf thi eor; end bruaght thim antu Edem tu sii whet hi wuald cell thim: end whetsuivir Edem cellid iviry lovong crietari, thet wes thi nemi thiriuf.
Imagine you're wading through your email one day, hoping against hope to find any sign of intelligent life amongst the infinite number of debt consolidation plans and chain letters. You get this mysterious message with no return address and before consigning it to electronic oblivion you wonder whether it's a coded message from a desperate CIA operative or yet another gimmick to get you to read about unbelievably low rates on home-equity loans. So you take it to your neighborhood computer geek. "It's a document from a word processor. When you send a document like this by email, it gets encoded into ASCII format to prevent special characters from interfering with the mail handling programs. Part of the message was lost along the way and when your mail program tried to decode it, the message was out of sync." Of course this sounds like so much cock and bull, since the word Adam is plain as the geek nose on his geek face. Does he honestly expect you to believe that the whole message would be garbled except for one word?
You forward the letter to your best friend to see what she makes of it. "It's obviously in Latin. The first line contains Roman numerals for the date and return address. There are all kinds of us's and ae's and you recognize the word Adam because it's the same in Latin and English." But the us's and ae's were only in the second paragraph.
So you pop it off to the expert at www.unsolicitedlatinspam.com; "How can anyone be so stupid and yet live?" he ;-)'s. "It's obviously in Hebrew, Latin, and French. Don't you know how to read?" You're stung, naturally. "Well, not Hebrew, Latin, or French. I don't know the words or the grammar." "Well, if you don't know the words and the grammar, you can't read the language." Thank you Professor Obvious.
"Well, what about the last paragraph, what's that?" You press on. "Hmmm, it looks like gibberish to me." "Is that what they speak in Gibber? Maybe you just don't know the words or the grammar." He seems un-fazed by your witty riposte.
At this point in the narrative structure I'll bet you're thinking that this whole scenario is completely unbelievable. Well, pardon me for not living! The Author can string you along with endless rubbish about Nazarite alcoholics, alchemical crock-pots and dog-hair fashion models, but my little tale is beyond imagining. For your information alcoholic beverages, pottery and woven cloth each pre-date written language, so the little vignettes the Author has composed cannot be substantiated by the historical record. To make matters worse, alcoholic beverages and cloth don't hold up well to the ravages of time and so there's precious little direct evidence about their origins in the archeological record. All the Author has done is to read a few books by experts in the field and then to make up little stories that are not substantially contradicted by the evidence available in those books. He has done so to provide a narrative which will entertain you as well as inform you. If he is successful, you will remember a few of these tall-tales, and perhaps the factual elements of their respective chapters will come along with them. Put another way, the Author has constructed meme complexes whose longevity may be enhanced by their associations with presumably fecund folk-tales. Only time and tests will tell whether the fidelity with which these meme-plexes are reproduced will suffer from the inclusion of these bull droppings.
If you ask me, the whole approach is completely unnecessary. In the memetic struggle to survive, most memes are in the unenviable position of having little to contribute to the material well-being of the creatures they inhabit. Consequently they rely on little tricks to make themselves more memorable. A religion may promise eternal bliss to those who remember the right things; songs use rhyming words to aid the memory. But a technological meme has the advantage that remembering it makes it possible to actually make something people need. I'm not saying that this makes a technological meme better than a non-technological meme, just that it comes with its own built-in incentive for remembering it. So the Author's memetic approach is bass-ackwards; if anything, people should want to remember the technologies more than the stories and not the other way about.
Take nomenclature, the subject of the present chapter. The ideas discussed here will allow you to speak a whole new language and to unambiguously communicate ideas about the stuff of the world. All the materials you take for granted, metals, glass, plastic, bricks and mortar depend on our ability to recognize and name their raw ingredients and to describe the processes used in their production. So you shouldn't need a song about gnomes in glaciers to hold your interest in nomenclature. The fact of the matter is that if you're going to make any kind of sense of the rest of the book, you're going to have to get used to certain phrases: somethingonium biglongnameate, toxiconium poisonide, and such. Think of it as the language of chemistry. And there's a complex grammar of how these words come apart and go together. So if you don't want to look like a slack-jawed yokel later on, you'd better study some vocabulary and grammar now.