Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Was Pliny the Elder a Terrible Dreamer?


One thousand nine hundred years ago, the famous scientist Pliny the Elder lived in Rome. This scientist was famous for his industriousness. Even on the road, swaying in a stretcher, which was carried by exhausted slaves being dripping with sweat, he managed to write with a sharp wand on wax-covered tablets. And in the bathhouse, while a slave was massaging his well-cared-for body or wiping him with a towel, he read a book.

The Eruption of Vesuvius in 79
The Eruption of Vesuvius in 79
Unlike modern scientists, Pliny was not a specialist: he was engaged in all sciences, which were at that time, without distinction. This learned man was an unusually curious person and was interested in everything in the world. This destroyed him: Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius. Watching from the deck of the ship what was happening on the shore, he ordered to swim too close to the volcano. Clubs of heavy, toxic smoke smothered the scientist.

Pliny's main work is Natural History. He wrote it for many years. This is a real encyclopedia of all the knowledge of the ancient world. It talks about the movement of the heavenly bodies, about countries and peoples, about animals and plants, about stones and metals ... It is narrated in it, by the way, and how glass was discovered.
One day, Pliny says, a Phoenician merchant ship, caught by a strong storm, had been forced to anchor in a small bay. Tired and cold sailors went ashore. They began to look for a place to make a bonfire in order to cook their soup and keep warm. The shore was sandy, there were no stones anywhere, and then one of the sailors came up with the idea: what if we take out from the hold blocks of soda that we are carrying for sale and put a boiler on them?

Soda in Nature
Soda in Nature
Soda in those days, as now, was used when washing clothes. In addition, clothmakers needed in it to soften the coat, and Egyptian priests - to embalm corpses.

The bonfire was a success, the sailors ate heartily and went to bed. And in the morning, going on a journey, one of them scattered the smoldering remains of a fire. Suddenly he noticed some shiny pieces in the ash. They were not like wood, nor metal, nor clay, nor stone. Until now, not a single Phoenician has seen such strange light pieces.

This new mysterious substance, according to Pliny, was glass: an alloy of coastal sand and soda.

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