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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Maya Blue

The chapter “What is Technology?” in my book Technology Challenged forced me to deal with the definition of technology as “applied science.” I wrote that, even though some dictionaries use it, I find that definition poor. Here’s a colorful example of just how poor.

Buried deep in the darkness of an abandoned well is indigo. In Mexico’s Yucatan, this blue pigment was painted on both humans and pottery, which were sacrificed to the gods and cast down the well. The same pigment made the sky of ancient murals as enduring as the sky above, even as other colors faded. It is called "Maya Blue."

Mayans must have been both lucky and keen observers to devise a mixture with a property that reveals itself ever so slowly. Today, we have the technology to view the nanometer scale—measured in billionths of a meter—that underlies their accomplishment. And we have developed a scientific understanding of it.

What ancient Mayans knew: set incense aflame to cook the flowering plant Añil with clay to create a blue that lasts.

What modern scientists know: heat can embed aniline, a bright indigo chemical from the plant Indigofera suffruticosa, into the natural clay palygorskite, which provides a protective lattice. This hybrid of “plant for color” and “mineral for structure” is the magic of a coloration that pays little attention to time or weather.

Science is wonderful. It predicts much and, after the fact, can explain more. Technology can come from application of science, but it has, at times, preceded scientific explanation by centuries. Even today, with the pace of both technology and science so rapid, technology can precede science. High-temperature superconductors are one area I’m aware that exhibits this order. Click on the comment link below to add those you know about.

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