It’s always a delight to discover the sublime hidden in the pedestrian.
I caught an episode of Planet Earth the other night on Discovery HD theater. Episode 4: Caves. You can watch it in 10 minute chunks on You Tube, but take note: it’s the version with Richard Attenborough’s narration, not Sigourney Weaver’s, whose voice is more soothing. The episode takes the viewer through spectacular caves around the world, some adorned with gorgeous crystals and others endowed with severe environments populated by bizarre fauna. The largest of these caves is in the United States, Lechugilla Cave, in New Mexico. It measures 126 miles long and was discovered recently, in 1986. A mini-documentary at the end of the episode tells viewers it took two years for the film crew to get permission to enter the cave and travel as far along it as they did. Part of the reason is that the crystals in Lechugilla are extremely fragile, crystals made of gypsum… which brings me to dry wall.
Dry wall is what most walls are made of, in America. Is dry wall dry? Actually no, it isn’t. The name “dry wall” refers to the dryness of plaster board in contrast to wet plaster laid by hand. Early dry wall is just plaster encased in paper; current dry wall includes gypsum in the plaster matrix. Gypsum, or calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO4·2H2O), contains two water molecules bound up by the mineral crystallization process. In a fire, this water is released. By incorporating gypsum into plaster, dry wall is in fact designed to be more wet. I happen not to be a fan of dry wall, or “gypsum board.” It’s a low quality material that easily turns moldy. I never would have thought that its primary ingredient could be so lovely.
Behold! the Chandelier Ballroom in Lechugilla cave, covered in so-called “alabaster” formations of the mineral gypsum. Here is a gypsum flower, and an aragonite tree. When I finally build my dream house, I want a room with towers like these. All these links go to the same website, www.cavepics.com, a home page for the photography of Peter and Ann Bosted. Fantastic.
Now is wish I had never let my childhood microscope go to pasture (the light is broken, I think). What other beautiful crystals are waiting to be discovered, hidden in plain sight within the material of my home? In Micrographia (1665), Robert Hooke, the great 17th century naturalist, waxed poetics about such common things as snowflakes and fleas observed at a minute scale:
Exposing a piece of black Cloth, or a black Hatt to the falling Snow, I have often with great pleasure, observ’d such an infinite variety of curiously figur’d Snow, that it would be as impossible to draw the Figure and shape of every one of them, as to imitate exactly the curious and Geometrical Mechanisme of Nature in any one.
The strength and beauty of this small creature, had it no other relation at all to man, would deserve a description… As for the beauty of it, the Microscope manifests it to be all over adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suit of sable Armour, neatly jointed, and beset with multitudes of sharp pinns, shap’d almost like Porcupine’s Quills, or bright conical Steel-bodkins; the head is on either side beautify’d with a quick and round black eye K, behind each of which also appears a small cavity, L, in which he seems to move to and fro a certain thin film beset with many small transparent hairs, which probably may be his ears.
These quotes are accompanied by detailed illustrations Hooke made, which show how talented he was not only in the sharpness of his mind, but the deftness of his hand. See them here. The blog Ptak Science Books makes a connection between Kepler and Hooke’s descriptions of six-sided snowflakes and Vincenzo Scamozzi’s fortified city plans, designed in the same era. And so the circle folds back into architecture.