Thursday, July 03, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post: Glass

The Glory of Glass

As mentioned last time, I have lots of books nearby which help me do things. I thank God for my parents and teachers who taught me to read, and for the bounty God arranged for me to earn which has permitted me to buy and keep these wonderful treasures. Have you remembered to thank those responsible for your gifts?

One of them is somewhat dated two-volume set called Chemical Elements and Their Compounds, which I was reading in preparation for a large-scale poetry project. other things have gotten in the way, and I don't know when I will be able to get to... You want to know why a computer scientist is writing poems about elements? Perhaps you've forgotten this blogg is a CHESTERTONIAN blogg? There's no such thing as a different subject. [GKC, ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:126] Remember, and write it in your notebook: "There is no such thing as an irrelevant thing in the universe; for all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe."

Anyway, in this book from the 1950s I found the answer to that poor Vulcan's speculation - and so many others - on the idea of silicon-based life. People love to imagine that because silicon is so much like carbon, with its four bonds, there could be silicon-based life... maybe somewhere in the universe.

These people are not chemists; they don't know how the four bonds of silicon are different from the four bonds of carbon:
The idea that silicon has an organic chemistry of its own, rivalling that of carbon, is now realized to be untrue, owing to the instability of the Si-Si and Si-H links.
[Sidgwick, Chemical Elements and Their Compounds, I 555]
Sorry, it's not happening. However! I have chosen to begin today's journey into Orthodoxy with this bit from chemistry, not to abase silicon, but to exalt it. It is no insult to this wonderful and plentiful element to speak of its limitations - for we remember (all together): "Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame." [CW1:243] Very good. (Are you starting to have some clue as to why I wanted to write poems about the elements? I thought so. Hee hee.)

And the glory of silicon - well, not of silicon itself, which is a rather odd substance, and rarely found outside the laboratory. (People persist in saying "silicone" which is something else, almost a kind of rubber - it is a polymer of the form -SiR2O- where R is a group such as methyl.) The silicon in an integrated circuit (the "chip" of modern electronics) has been treated with a variety of "doping" agents (things which change how it conducts electricity) and then etched into a fantastic multi-layered mosaic...They are one of the genuine marvels of our day, and an extreme form of grand cooperation among very different fields of study. Again, all very interesting and worth spending time on, but not today.

No, as I started to say, the glory of silicon is in one very famous, and very ancient, compound - one in which silicon is combined with two atoms of oxygen - SiO2 - one of the main constituents of the Earth's crust, commonly known as quartz, and worked by humans for over 5000 years. From common sand we get the wonderful and highly Chestertonian thing called GLASS.

Now, last week I pointed to the humorous aspects of frogs and dragons - I have at least one bit of that sort of humour this week too, so when you have finished your drink you can proceed, and then I will tell you more about glass.

Swallow, then click here.
As a computer scientist, and a lunatic Chestertonian who moreover has spoken at three Chesterton Conferences, I usually have to find something suitable to express this unusual truth. I found it, and it is quite good - unfortunately the first time I tried to use it in a speech, I laughed so hard I could not continue for a couple of minutes. It's from "The Crime of Gabriel Gale" in The Poet and the Lunatics (Ah, you are seeing some more about my plans, are you?) when our hero has been caught observing a storm, and he says:
"I often stare at windows."
Yes, GG - me too. Even if the windows are not the Gates kind, most of the modern user-interface methods use such a layered, multi-panel approach. Yes, OK - it's funny. Now, let's get back to glass. And please don't bring up that Father Brown story about the absence of Mr. Glass, or I will start laughing. Hee hee hee.

OK, (ahem!) now that we have both regained some control... Recall where we are. We have just introduced very Chestertonian ideas: (1) the importance of gratitude and (2) the "Doctrine of Conditional Joy".

First, Chesterton urges us to be thankful for all things, even the dull or trivial or commonplace; this is the correct and healthy view of reality, and provides a working basis for true contemplation, whether it be scientific, literary, or philosophical. We're given this world (the KOSMOS, or universe) - all of it. We do NOT deserve it at all, and yet we have it. Even if it is not obvious what good it is - a frog, a sea-dragon, a telegraph, a pane of glass - we need to be grateful it is that and not something else. (An aside: this gets into a very deep piece of philosophy: the ontological idea of the perfection of being. But that is a steep and dangerous path. We shall merely note its blazes, perhaps for a future hike, and move on.)

Second, Chesterton points out that this grand delight in the ALL comes with a little warning label. We have the ALL, but only on conditions - and those conditions most likely seem crazily unrelated to anything. Even after some lengthy consideration, there seems to be no good reason for the imposition of such conditions, as slight as they may seem. But then (GKC asks) what's the reason for the grand gift? That's the point. Conditional Joy. (If this is not clear, we're about to see some more.)

These two ideas are the substrate (the foundation, the building blocks) of many fairy tales - and even some stories which are hardly considered such. But let us hear GKC:
This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty. Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers. Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she received a command - which might have come out of Brixton - that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.
Ah, recall some weeks ago I said we would hear more about glass? Here it is - or perhaps I should say here it comes. But let us consider what we've just read, and not skip the unfamiliar parts.

What is Portland Gaol? Well, "Gaol" is the English spelling for "jail" (both come from a Latin word cavea = a cavity or cage).

What is Fleet Street? A street in London, built on the long-vanished Fleet River. But the term is often used as a symbol more than as a geographic reference, as it was (and still is, I am told) the centre of what we now call "The Media" - the site of all the big newspapers - which is why GKC mentions "journalists" in oblique apposition to it. (SO when GKC says "Fleet Street" you can just about always read "The Media" and you'll have it - just remember it's also a real place that GKC walked along...)

Now that you know these terms, please look at this one line again:
"People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty."
I think that is a grand line. It was anticipated in GKC's Browning where he says this deeply profound line:
we forget that free speech is a paradox.
We are bound to tradition if we wish to communicate, far more tightly bound than those kept in Portland Gaol. Even "liberals" (modern sense) from the Far Left bow in humble submission as deeply as conservatives (modern sense) when they speak and write - they may try to redefine "is" but don't dare take that method very far - especially when it comes to their paychecks! Any of us, from whatever point in the political spectrum, might bend the rules when we speak or write - but we writers risk losing our readers if we go too far. Free speech is indeed a paradox, and so is free writing. No wonder St. John's most grand line - the grandest of the whole Gospel - is this: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" - the line in the Last Gospel at which we genuflect, like in the English hobby of change-ringing of bells, where the great "tenor" bell is rung after all the others, as all the possible patterns are rung..., or the 01000111 pattern coming every 188 characters in an MPEG stream on cable TV - it keeps us in sync... Ahem. Sorry I was distracted; it is so thrilling to write about this. And someday, if you remind me, I will write something on what he means about fairies being the slaves of duty. But for now let us go back to GKC and glass.
Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do. Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace." If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?" her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are going there till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.
Yes, indeed - in Egypt there are pieces of glass some three or more thousand years old. The wonder of glass... In another essay GKC points out a marvel which seems to be lost on many people these days, even intelligent ones, even computer people, lit'ry people, and philosophers. Here are the critical verses:
...behind all designs for specific windows stands eternally the essential idea of a window; and the essential idea of a window is a thing which admits light. A dark window cannot be a good window, though it may be an excellent picture. ... There is an almost infinite variety of meanings which can be expressed by windows and pillars and all other forms of artistic workmanship - but they have their indwelling limitations. They cannot express darkness in a window or a surrender in a column of stone.
["The Meaning of the Theatre" in Lunacy and Letters]
It is worth considering. How does that link? Because carbon is not silicon! (A window might be made of carbon in its form of diamond, but it won't be nearly as beautiful as it would be if it were cut into dozens of facets.) Because a frog is not a sea-dragon, nor a telegraph! (See my writing from last week.) There is a variety of things in Fairy Land - and in the real world - and they really are different, and not to be confused, even when they are mixed. A wizard does not tell the hero "wave the dragon over the wand and it will vanish" - it only sounds like drunken babble.

Yes, there are some other side paths here, but let us attend to the main trail. We are exploring this "Doctrine of Conditional Joy" - and I must stress something here. We are NOT talking about this abstractly! This "Doctrine" (though it may sound academic, or theoretical) is a real idea, and had its powerful effect on GKC... like this trail, it leads us onward to something more. Re-read how he rephrased it:
" seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture."
Ah, you sigh. Now you grasp something deeper - and something unexpected - in that famous quote about the frame. Yes. And there's a reason GKC continually weaves, and re-weaves, and links, and re-links: Like a good mystery, like a good story, like a good computer program, like a good sweater or meal or family, like - like Reality - all things relate to all things - and to the ALL: "all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe."

Recall, a few weeks ago, how I said something about GKC always dealing with vision? Like free speech, vision is a paradox too, with mystic and eccentric limitations. We must be grateful.

--Dr. Thursday

Thank you Dr. T. for this marvelous post.


  1. I just read this again, and feel quite chagrined at having overlooked something - something rather important.

    There are windows made from carbon - er - carbon compounds. Rather important ones, in fact. They are the cornea and lens of the eye. But these, of course, are given to us, not made by us.

    Also, nowadays, there are a number of transparent plastics from which windows can be made. Still, glass has an ancient history which is still in vogue in our day, and even the wonderful modern plastics have not supplanted it.

    But one hardly considers these things in thinking of carbon as graphite, or coal, or (in the organic sense) as wood or muscle. And silicon itself and many of its common compounds are hardly transparent: granite, for instance.

    So my allusion is still reasonable. I just wanted to clear it up. (hee hee)

    --Dr. Thursday

  2. 'Chemical Elements and Their Compounds'...possibly a book order I placed for you awhile back?

    - Chris


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