Humans have evolved, we have always been nosey, inventive creatures ... able to take advantage of our natural environment – the earth’s crust – perhaps to our cost now ... but the elements and ancient humans helped shaped this world of ours as it is today.
We found mineral rich ores from which we were able to fashion simple tools that became the foundation of civilisation; we had tapped into river systems and were controlling the water supplies to feed and create early cities; we explored and were able to track the winds and work out that they had a circular motion .. returning us whence we came – creating trade routes.
On the Yellow River, Xunhua Province (further west than Shanxi Province highlighted below)
Plants and animals in their wasted state became coal and oil, our technological exploitations go on ... our processing abilities continue – the brain amazes ... will co-operation bring the next huge leap forward?
The ancient civilisations of China had settled, expanded, acquired huge reserves of knowledge, and most importantly had the capabilities of feeding their large populations from the wind deposited loess rich soils of inland China (the site of the Terracotta Army) ...
.... but were far too early to take advantage of the engineering, scientific and industrial revolutions of the 18th century, while the huge continent did not and still does not lend itself to easy transportation routes – even the rivers are so vast, flowing through high gorges, full of enormous rapids, liable to flooding the lower reaches which makes security of shipping goods nigh impossible.
The elements – earth, wind, fire and water – continue to wreak havoc interrupting at times our progression, yet continue to provide new materials and resources that we learn to utilise.
Some thoughts on some minerals and how we have taken advantage of them over the centuries ... as symbols of power in carvings, the Chinese and Mayans with their jade figurines and masks, Byzantine use of Lapis Lazuli in their churches and palaces as cladding of all things!
A polished specimen of Lapis Lazuli
Muscovite, a silicate mineral, produces large transparent crystals which were once used as window panes in Moscow: hence its name! That supply came from Norway, while material from India is still used in furnace doors, where normal glass would melt – presumably as in wood burning stoves, that we so love here in England.
Silicon – we know makes chips ... zillions of them – not of potato, but from the second most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust – powering or controlling just about everything we do.
Integrated circuit of Atmel Diopsis 740System on Chip showing memory blocks, logic and input/output pads around the periphery
Silica, usually in the form of quartz is the most common constituent of sand; however quartz rocks have been known for millennia – the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, believed quartz to be water ice – permanently frozen in time – hence the word crystal from the Greek word for ice.
Fatimid carved rock crystal (clear quartz) vase, c. 1000
Galena, the main ore of lead, was better known in Cleopatra’s day (3,500 BC) as eye kohl; two thousand years ago the Romans utilised the by-product of silver smelting – lead for their waterworks, and copper; now the by-products include zinc, antimony etc as well as bismuth, whose commercial importance is now being recognised as an alloy replacement for lead, eliminating its toxicity.
Lead pipes - set amongst well trodden Roman pavements
Copper – perhaps is the ‘all metal’ .. we know many of its uses over time – early tools, pots, conductive piping and money; it is 100% recyclable, probably 80% of all copper mined is still in use today. Now it is even used for door knobs in hospitals, because of its antibacterial/germicidal properties.. while copper tubing is used in air conditioning systems to deter the spread of Legionnaires’ disease.
Copper is essential for all plants and animals being distributed widely in the body – in liver, muscle and bone; rich sources of copper are to be found in oysters, beef or lamb liver, Brazil nuts, cocoa and black pepper (of all things!).
Steel too has been known for millennia, arising as a by-product of smelting iron (when carbon is produced) – the most common element in the earth and the fourth most common in the earth’s crust – ancient steel excavations date from 4,000 years ago in Asia Minor and East Africa; the Romans extensively used steel, as did the Chinese over 2,000 years ago.
These old world base metals are now being usurped in the race for supremacy by the search for free elements and rare-earth metals – essential to our modern life for their use in magnets, lasers, xrays, computer memories, telephony etc
The cycle goes round, China the cradle of ancient dynasties, finds itself once again with the wealth in its interior and despite being technologically advanced, its infrastructure simply cannot keep up with the breakneck growth that is going on.
Traffic jams, monstrous gridlocks, and snarl ups are commonplace – jams as long as 60 miles, lasting nine days ... the coal from Inner Mongolia is desperately needed, transported by trucks to fuel its energy needs ... entrepreneurial street vendors take advantage by setting up shop with the basic commodities of human consumption .. no change there then.
This photo of 'Björkskär', the main island, comprising a group of islands in Stockholm outer archipelago, where rare-earth metals were first found in Ytterby village quarry.
If it flies or you talk into it - it has rare-earth metals ... and China for now keeps a steely grip on the market ... by undercutting the competition in Africa, America and elsewhere; market forces however now play their part and have precipitated a rash of proposed mining and processing operations outside China, on the realisation of the enormous hike in market prices and that complacency cannot reign whatever the cost for these essential minerals.
However – is the earth moving in China? Will the closed society of today be more embracing to the rest of world in the future .. will the fact that the People’s Republic of China have embraced the Linux free and open source software ... prelude new beginnings?
What else has this wonderful earth and its crusty outside have to offer us ... more wonders to behold – more hidden secrets to find.
Dear Mr Postman - my mother has been completely awake – we’ve talked about conkers and playing conkers as children (we had a few conker trees in the garden) Warwick Castle, and Alfred the Great and his times .. with a little patience and clear diction .. she participates and asks questions – she continues to amaze us all! Long may it last – particularly her hearing – life is just so much easier and pleasurable.
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