The Value of Transparency

Once you start looking for it, it can be quite staggering to realise just how much of our modern world is, quite literally, built on glass. The stuff is manufactured in vast quantities, coating our windows, lights, screens, skyscrapers and countless other uses. Some argue that it is even responsible for the entire development of the world, particularly in the west, as we know it; it’s almost a wonder we take it for granted so.

Technically, out commonplace use of the word ‘glass’ rather oversimplifies the term; glasses are in fact a family of materials that all exhibit the same amorphous structure and behaviour under heating whilst not actually all being made from the same stuff. The member of this family that we are most familiar with and will commonly refer to as simply ‘glass’ is soda-lime glass, made predominantly from silica dioxide with a few other additives to make it easier to produce. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me tell the story from the beginning.

Like all the best human inventions, glass was probably discovered by accident. Archaeological evidence suggests glassworking was probably an Egyptian invention in around the third millennia BC, Egypt (or somewhere nearby) being just about the only place on earth at the time where the three key ingredients needed for glass production occured naturally and in the same place: silica dioxide (aka sand), sodium carbonate (aka soda, frequently found as a mineral or from plant ashes) and a relatively civilised group of people capable of building a massive great fire. When Egyptian metalworkers got sand and soda in their furnaces by accident, when removed they discovered the two had fused to form a hard, semi-transparent, almost alien substance; the first time glass had been produced anywhere on earth.

This type of glass was far from perfect; for one thing, adding soda has the unfortunate side-effect of making silica glass water-soluble, and for another they couldn’t yet work out how to make the glass clear. Then there were the problems that came with trying to actually make anything from the stuff. The only glass forming technique at the time was called core forming, a moderately effective but rather labour-intensive process illustrated well in this video. Whilst good for small, decorative pieces, it became exponentially more difficult to produce an item by this method the larger it needed to be, not to mention the fact that it couldn’t produce flat sheets of glass for use as windows or whatever.

Still, onwards and upwards and all that, and developments were soon being made in the field of glass technology. Experimentation with various additives soon yielded the discovery that adding lime (calcium oxide) plus a little aluminium and magnesium oxide made soda glass insoluble, and thus modern soda-lime glass was discovered. In the first century BC, an even more significant development came along with the discovery of glass blowing as a production method. Glass blowing was infinitely more flexible than core forming, opening up an entirely new avenue for glass as a material, but crucially it allowed glass products to be produced faster and thus be cheaper than pottery equivalents . By this time, the Eastern Mediterranean coast where these discoveries took place was part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans took to glass like a dieter to chocolate; glass containers and drinking vessels spread across the Empire from the glassworks of Alexandria, and that was before they discovered manganese dioxide could produce clear glass and that it was suddenly suitable for architectural work.

Exactly why glass took off on quite such a massive scale in Europe yet remained little more than a crude afterthought in the east and China (the other great superpower of the age) is somewhat unclear. Pottery remained the material of choice throughout the far east, and they got very skilled at making it too; there’s a reason we in the west today call exceptionally fine, high-quality pottery ‘china’. I’ve only heard one explanation for why this should be so, and it centres around alcohol.

Both the Chinese and Roman empires loved wine, but did so in different ways. To the Chinese, alcohol was a deeply spiritual thing, and played an important role in their religious procedures. This attitude was not unheard of in the west (the Egyptians, for example, believed the god Osiris invented beer, and both Greeks and Romans worshipped a god of wine), but the Roman Empire thought of wine in a secular as well as religious sense; in an age where water was often unsafe to drink, wine became the drink of choice for high society in all situations. One of the key features of wine to the Roman’s was its appearance, hence why the introduction of clear vessels allowing them to admire this colour was so attractive to them. By contrast, the Chinese day-to-day drink of choice was tea. whose appearance was of far less importance than the ability of its container to dissipate heat (as fine china is very good at). The introduction of clear drinking vessels would, therefore, have met with only a limited market in the east, and hence it never really took off. I’m not entirely sure that this argument holds up under scrutiny, but it’s quite a nice idea.

Whatever the reason, the result was unequivocal; only in Europe was glassmaking technology used and advanced over the years. Stained glass was one major discovery, and crown glass (a method for producing large, flat sheets) another. However, the crucial developments would be made in the early 14th century, not long after the Republic of Venice (already a centre for glassmaking) ordered all its glassmakers to move out to the island of Murano to reduce the risk of fire (which does seem ever so slightly strange for a city founded, quite literally, on water).  On Murano, the local quartz pebbles offered glassmakers silica of hitherto unprecedented purity which, combined with exclusive access to a source of soda ash, allowed for the production of exceptionally high-quality glassware. The Murano glassmakers became masters of the art, producing glass products of astounding quality, and from here onwards the technological revolution of glass could begin. The Venetians worked out how to make lenses, in turn allowing for the discovery of the telescope (forming the basis of the work of both Copernicus and Galileo) and spectacles (extending the working lifespan of scribes and monks across the western world). The widespread introduction of windows (as opposed to fabric-covered holes in the wall) to many houses, particularly in the big cities, dramatically improved the health of their occupants by both keeping the house warmer and helping keep out disease. Perhaps most crucially, the production of high-quality glass vessels was not only to revolutionise biology, and in turn medicine, as a discipline, but to almost single-handedly create the modern science of chemistry, itself the foundation stone upon which most of modern physics is based. These discoveries would all, given enough time and quite a lot of social upheaval, pave the way for the massive technological advancements that would characterise the western world in the centuries to come, and which would finally allow the west to take over from the Chinese and Arabs and become the world’s leading technological superpowers.* Nowadays, of course, glass has been taken even further, being widely used as a building material (its strength-to-weight ratio far exceeds that of concrete, particularly when it is made to ‘building grade’ standard), in televisions, and fibre optic cables (which may yet revolutionise our communications infrastructure).

Glass is, of course, not the only thing to have catalysed the technological breakthroughs that were to come; similar arguments have been made regarding gunpowder and the great social and political changes that were to grip Europe between roughly 1500 and 1750. History is never something that one can place a single cause on (the Big Bang excepted), but glass was undoubtedly significant in the western world’s rise to prominence during the second half of the last millennia, and the Venetians probably deserve a lot more credit than they get for creating our modern world.

*It is probably worth mentioning that China is nowadays the world’s largest producer of glass.

Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so…

In the dim and distant past, time was, to humankind, a thing and not much more. There was light-time, then there was dark-time, then there was another lot of light-time; during the day we could hunt, fight, eat and try to stay alive, and during the night we could sleep and have sex. However, we also realised that there were some parts of the year with short days and colder night, and others that were warmer, brighter and better for hunting. Being the bright sort, we humans realised that the amount of time it spent in winter, spring, summer and autumn (fall is the WRONG WORD) was about the same each time around, and thought that rather than just waiting for it to warm up every time we could count how long it took for one cycle (or year) so that we could work out when it was going to get warm next year. This enabled us to plan our hunting and farming patterns, and it became recognised that some knowledge of how the year worked was advantageous to a tribe. Eventually, this got so important that people started building monuments to the annual seasonal progression, hence such weird and staggeringly impressive prehistoric engineering achievements as Stonehenge.

However, this basic understanding of the year and the seasons was only one step on the journey, and as we moved from a hunter-gatherer paradigm to more of a civilised existence, we realised the benefits that a complete calendar could offer us, and thus began our still-continuing test to quantify time. Nowadays our understanding of time extends to clocks accurate to the degree of nanoseconds, and an understanding of relativity, but for a long time our greatest quest into the realm of bringing organised time into our lives was the creation of the concept of the wee.

Having seven days of the week is, to begin with, a strange idea; seven is an awkward prime number, and it seems odd that we don’t pick number that is easier to divide and multiply by, like six, eight or even ten, as the basis for our temporal system. Six would seem to make the most sense; most of our months have around 30 days, or 5 six-day weeks, and 365 days a year is only one less than multiple of six, which could surely be some sort of religious symbolism (and there would be an exact multiple on leap years- even better). And it would mean a shorter week, and more time spent on the weekend, which would be really great. But no, we’re stuck with seven, and it’s all the bloody moon’s fault.

Y’see, the sun’s daily cycle is useful for measuring short-term time (night and day), and the earth’s rotation around it provides the crucial yearly change of season. However, the moon’s cycle is 28 days long (fourteen to wax, fourteen to wane, regular as clockwork), providing a nice intermediary time unit with which to divide up the year into a more manageable number of pieces than 365. Thus, we began dividing the year up into ‘moons’ and using them as a convenient reference that we could refer to every night. However, even a moon cycle is a bit long for day-to-day scheduling, and it proved advantageous for our distant ancestors to split it up even further. Unfortunately, 28 is an awkward number to divide into pieces, and its only factors are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. An increment of 1 or 2 days is simply too small to be useful, and a 4 day ‘week’ isn’t much better. A 14 day week would hardly be an improvement on 28 for scheduling purposes, so seven is the only number of a practical size for the length of the week. The fact that months are now mostly 30 or 31 days rather than 28 to try and fit the awkward fact that there are 12.36 moon cycles in a year, hasn’t changed matters, so we’re stuck with an awkward 7 day cycle.

However, this wasn’t the end of the issue for the historic time-definers (for want of a better word); there’s not much advantage in defining a seven day week if you can’t then define which day of said week you want the crops to be planted on. Therefore, different days of the week needed names for identification purposes, and since astronomy had already provided our daily, weekly and yearly time structures it made sense to look skyward once again when searching for suitable names. At this time, centuries before the invention of the telescope, we only knew of seven planets, those celestial bodies that could be seen with the naked eye; the sun, the moon (yeah, their definition of ‘planet’ was a bit iffy), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It might seem to make sense, with seven planets and seven days of the week, to just name the days after the planets in a random order, but humankind never does things so simply, and the process of picking which day got named after which planet was a complicated one.

In around 1000 BC the Egyptians had decided to divide the daylight into twelve hours (because they knew how to pick a nice, easy-to-divide number), and the Babylonians then took this a stage further by dividing the entire day, including night-time, into 24 hours. The Babylonians were also great astronomers, and had thus discovered the seven visible planets- however, because they were a bit weird, they decided that each planet had its place in a hierarchy, and that this hierarchy was dictated by which planet took the longest to complete its cycle and return to the same point in the sky. This order was, for the record, Saturn (29 years), Jupiter (12 years), Mars (687 days), Sun (365 days), Venus (225 days), Mercury (88 days) and Moon (28 days). So, did they name the days after the planets in this order? Of course not, that would be far too simple; instead, they decided to start naming the hours of the day after the planets (I did say they were a bit weird) in that order, going back to Saturn when they got to the Moon.

However, 24 hours does not divide nicely by seven planets, so the planet after which the first hour of the day was named changed each day. So, the first hour of the first day of the week was named after Saturn, the first hour of the second day after the Sun, and so on. Since the list repeated itself each week, the Babylonians decided to name each day after the planet that the first hour of each day was named, so we got Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday.

Now, you may have noticed that these are not the days of the week we English speakers are exactly used to, and for that we can blame the Vikings. The planetary method for naming the days of the week was brought to Britain by the Romans, and when they left the Britons held on to the names. However, Britain then spent the next 7 centuries getting repeatedly invaded and conquered by various foreigners, and for most of that time it was the Germanic Vikings and Saxons who fought over the country. Both groups worshipped the same gods, those of Norse mythology (so Thor, Odin and so on), and one of the practices they introduced was to replace the names of four days of the week with those of four of their gods; Tyr’sday, Woden’sday (Woden was the Saxon word for Odin), Thor’sday and Frig’sday replaced Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday in England, and soon the fluctuating nature of language renamed the days of the week Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

However, the old planetary names remained in the romance languages (the Spanish translations of the days Tuesday to Friday are Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi and Vendredi), with one small exception. When the Roman Empire went Christian in the fourth century, the ten commandments dictated they remember the Sabbath day; but, to avoid copying the Jews (whose Sabbath was on Saturday), they chose to make Sunday the Sabbath day. It is for this reason that Monday, the first day of the working week after one’s day of rest, became the start of the week, taking over from the Babylonian’s choice of Saturday, but close to Rome they went one stage further and renamed Sunday ‘Deus Dominici’, or Day Of The Lord. The practice didn’t catch on in Britain, thousands of miles from Rome, but the modern day Spanish, French and Italian words for Sunday are domingo, dimanche and domenica respectively, all of which are locally corrupted forms of ‘Deus Dominici’.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a natural conclusion, or even much of a point to it. But hey; I didn’t start writing this because I wanted to make a point, but more to share the kind of stuff I find slightly interesting. Sorry if you didn’t.