Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

3 posts categorized "East Asia"

19 July 2022

Gold - why is it so valuable?

Our current Gold exhibition explores the use of gold in books and documents around the world. This blogpost looks at gold from a scientific perspective, and why it has the properties that have caused it to be so valued throughout human history.

Gold is probably the first metal to be known to humans. Unlike other metals, which need to be extracted from their ores, gold exists in the environment as the metal itself, from tiny specks up to large nuggets. This is because it rarely reacts with other chemicals, which also explains why it does not tarnish in air like silver or rust like iron. The oldest gold items in the exhibition are two gold plaques, with shelfmarks Or 5340 A and Or 5340 B, with inscribed Buddhist scriptures in Pali. They were discovered buried at the base of a stupa in Maunggan in Myanmar and are dated to the 5th or 6th centuries CE.

Two strips of gold inscribed in Pali, with a ruler for comparison showing them to be around 25cm and 35cm long.
The Buddhist gold plaques



Because of its lack of corrosion, gold has been seen as mystically special, and used for objects of high prestige and to make coins. One notable object in our exhibition is the treaty between the rulers of the Indian city of Calicut (now Kozhikode) and the Dutch, which was inscribed into a two-metre-long strip of gold. Gold was used to symbolise the importance of the treaty but also for practical reasons, as a material that would not rot or decay in a tropical climate.


The reason why gold is so unreactive is because of the number of electrons in each atom. This is the same as the number of protons, and it is this which decides which element an atom is. Within atoms, electrons are arranged in layers called "shells", and gold is particularly unreactive as its outermost shell is full of electrons, which is a particularly stable state for an atom.


Unlike some atoms with full outermost shells, like helium and neon, gold can react with some other chemicals. This is because gold can lose one to three electrons if the reaction can release enough energy to strip them off - called "oxidation", and it can also share electrons with other atoms, without giving up any of its own.


The first material to be discovered by medieval alchemists which can react with gold is the famous aqua regia, Latin for "king's water". Despite the appetising-sounding name, this is very dangerous and you should not try this at home - it is a very corrosive mixture of concentrated hydrochloric acid and nitric acid in water. Because of the hydrochloric acid, the mixture contains chloride ions, which are chlorine atoms which have received an extra electron from the hydrogen atoms in the water. The chloride atoms can share their electrons with the gold atoms to create what are called complexes, and this makes it easier for the nitric acid, which is an oxidising agent, to strip electrons away from the gold atoms, creating gold chlorides which dissolve in the water. Gold compounds do have some uses, such as treating arthritis and in some kinds of traditional silver-based photography.
Fortunately aqua regia doesn't occur naturally, so our gold exhibits are perfectly safe.


Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20th May 20 Sunday 2nd October 2022, and you can book tickets online to visit.

Supported by:

The logo of BullionVault shows an isometric gold cube inside a larger transparent cube.

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

04 December 2019

Oil, storms and knowing part 1: Seafarers Calm Waves with Oil

This post is to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

A storm at sea is one of the most feared experiences, as it often presages shipwreck. Mariners would do anything to survive tempestuous waters, from weather forecasting to casting holy oil or auspicious soil from the tomb of a Persian Sufi saint, Abu Eshaq Kazaruni (d. 1035) on the waves.

Occasionally, sailors wailing from fear were also briefly plunged into the sea: to calm them, not the waves though.

A medieval illumination showing a group of people with varied skin-tones and costumes crammed into a ship. A young boy is being dangled by his arms over the side.
A Persian pageboy is thrown overboard briefly in order to calm his fears from Saʿdī Shīrāzī, Gulistān (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kullīyāt. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Oil features prominently in K. V. Hariharan’s paper on ‘Sea-dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’, a catalogue of traditional adaptation practices to a range of marine hazards, including cyclones: ‘Seafarers seemed to have known the effect of oil to smoothen the sea surface’. As storms approached seafarers ‘covered their body and garments with oil to smoothen the surface of the water they touched on thus presenting less resistance to the wind and preventing breaking of the waves – the real dangers in wave motion’.

The sewn boats in the archipelago of Lakshadweep, South India, boats fastened with coir, not nails, have also been coated with an oily material for the same reason seafarers covered themselves with oil: making the vessels waterproof and smoothing the water around them.

In addition to coating, seafarers also poured oil directly onto the sea to prevent the waves from breaking on their vessel. Throwing oil on the waves was applied so widely that it became in idiom in Dutch (‘olie op de golven gooien’) and English (‘pouring oil on troubled waters’) with the meaning of settling a disagreement and ‘bringing about a state of calm after great anger or excitement, etc., by tact and diplomacy.’

‘Oily seas’ that appear during the stormy southwest monsoon (June-September) along the Kerala coast, however, are not caused by mariners but natural processes. According to B. Arunachalam, an authority of Indian marine navigation:

[…] such a sea-surface – the kedu neer – is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface, ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin, for this reason, are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times. 

Kedu neer  (Tamil  கெடு நீர் ) literally means ‘bad water’. It refers to a turbid and calm marine area with almost no waves. A recent scientific study suggests the calmness of the ‘oily sea’ is linked to the wave damping effect of fine suspended matter, not oil. Mariners may have called these patches ‘oily seas’ as the water over the mud banks near Cochin, Kerala, known to generations of fishers, behave similarly to waters that have no waves because they were covered by a thin oil patch.

A close-up of a wooden boat on water, with an area of calm water immediately around it contracting with the rippling water further away
Traditional sewn fishing boat, small odam, in Agatti, Lakshadweep, India, coated with an oily substance. Photo by Andrea Deri, 23 February 2007

 

A simplified image of the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. The site of Cochin is highlighted.
Map of the Indian Ocean in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:9) YA.2003.a.26499. Cochin, where the oily seas of the mud banks provide safe anchoring during the monsoon season, is marked in South India.

 

A hand=drawn chart of a coastline and island
Traditional Kutchi sea chart, with east at the top, features the Malabar coast, shown as seen from the sea, with coconut palms in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:28) YA.2003.a.26499. The Cochin port (Kochi Bandar) played an important role in local and regional trade. South Indian ports are considered to be some of the oldest maritime centres.

 

It was not only in the tropical seas where mariners made use of the oil’s water calming properties. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, tells us ‘How Bishop Aidan foretold to certain seamen a storm that would happen, and gave them some holy oil to lay it’ [642-645 AD] off the Kentish coast in cold North Sea, recorded in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in the British Library at Add MS 1450.

Bede lists his sources including Utta, the priest who received the oil from Aidan, in order to add credibility to Aidan’s sea calming, revered as miracle. The credit, however, perhaps should go beyond Aiden, to local mariners anonymous to chroniclers.

As Aidan served on two islands, Iona and Lindisfarne, he spent considerable time in boats where he may have experienced and learned the practice of pouring oil on waves from local fishers and seal hunters who ferried him. Could Aiden’s holy oil be the same kind of oil local mariners used to quell waves? If so, this is an example of how local knowledge or rather adaptation practice to extreme weather became canonised.

A stylised medieval image showing three robed men in a sailing boat.
St Cuthbert (c 634-687) in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert. Yates Thompson 26 f. 26 Cuthbert became a monk after his vision of St Aidan who died in 651

 

Nautical idioms preserve seafarers’ practices. Most of us, landlubbers, need to take a historical perspective to unpack and appreciate their meaning, and we may still ponder over their relevance today. Faced with the unfolding changes of our climate, a major concern of our time, seafarers may serve a great source of inspiration by the way they kept their knowledge alive with keen observation, tireless experimentation and sharing.

If you have an "oil on water" story, you can tell us here.

References and further reading

Arunachalam, B. Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2002)  Shelfmark YA.2003.a.26499

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (London, 1954). Book III, Chapter XV. Shelfmark 4824.m.1

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Plympton annals for the years 1066-1177, Shelfmark Add MS 1450

Hariharan, K. V. ‘Sea-Dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’. Journal of Indian History, 1956. 34 (Part III (Serial No 102)), pp.313–320. Shelfmark Ac.1928/2

Jeans, P.D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea (Santa Barbara, 1993) Shelfmark YC.1996.b.3808

Jyothibabu., R. Balachandran, K.K., Jagadeesan, L., Karnan, C., Arunpandi, N., Naqvi, S.W.A., Pandiyarajan, R.S., 2018. ‘Mud Banks along the southwest coast of India are not too muddy for plankton’. Nature Sci. Rep. 8, 2544. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20667-9 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

OED, pour oil on troubled waters. [online] Oxford Dictionaries | English. 2019. Available online at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pour_oil_on_troubled_waters [Accessed 3 December 2019].

M. b. Otman, ‘Ferdaws al-moršediya fi asrar al-samadiya’. In: F. Meier and I.A. Afšar, eds., Die Vita des Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni in der Persischen Bearbeitung von. (Istanbul, 1943) Shelfmark Per.D.537

Sa'di Shirazi, Gulistan (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kulliyat. Shelfmark IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Subramanian, P.R. Kriyavin tarkalat Tamil akarati: Tamil-Tamil-Ankilam (Madras, 2000)

Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1989:749) Shelfmark OIA 423

Varadarajan, L. Sewn Boats of Lakshadweep. National Institute of ([Dona Paula], 1998). Shelfmark YP.2019.b.606

Wright, J.R. A companion to Bede: a reader’s commentary on ‘The ecclesiastical history of the English people’. (Grand Rapids, 2008) Shelfmark YC.2009.a.15214.