Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Papacy and Engineering: Metallurgy

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

III. The Pope as Engineer: A. The Metallurgist
Heart of Jesus, burning furnace of charity...
"Purifying your souls in the obedience of charity..." (1 Pt 1:22)
Engineer comes from a Greek root meaning to produce. As I think of it, Science is connected with the theoretical aspect of philosophy, while Engineering is connected with its practical aspect. While the scientist usually deals with learning or finding out (or more properly knowing), the engineer usually deals with doing, which is revealed in the virtue of charity.
In Psalm 12, there is a curious comment on the purity of our Lord's words : "The words of the Lord are words without alloy, silver from the furnace, seven times refined."[22] The ancient engineering discipline called metallurgy might then be a valuable thing to consider.
In 1540 a fascinating book called The Pirotechnia was written by an Italian metallurgist named Biringuccio – a book which has been called "history's first clear, comprehensive work on metallurgy."[23] Oddly enough, it ought to be a required text for both religious and laity, since it explains that verse from the Psalms, and sheds light on Malachi's messianic prophecies:
And who shall be able to think of the day of His coming? and who shall stand to see Him? for He is like a refining fire, and like the fuller's herb: And He shall sit refining and cleansing the silver, and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and shall refine them as gold, and as silver, and they shall offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice....
For behold the day shall come kindled as a furnace: and all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch. But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in His wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd (Mal 3:2-3, 4:1-2).
One does not have to take a tour of a metal-working plant to have a sense of the danger and hard physical labor involved in the workings of furnaces. But Biringuccio's book reveals that this industry is nothing modern – it was, if anything, far harder and more dangerous in his day – with less mechanical assistance, and so comparatively little known about nature. And yet, this book also reveals a certain height of true progress, and one which we would do well to resume:
Whenever the excavation of a mine is begun, it is customary first to seek the grace of God, so that He may intervene to aid every doubtful and difficult effort; and in place of this one would be seeking the aid of the devils of hell. Whence I think it better to abandon the way of bestial and fearless men and to choose the way of using the signs that are exhibited to us through the benignity of Nature, founded on truth and approved by all experts because of their experience, which, as is evident, does not consist of words or promises of incomprehensible and vain things.[24]
Oh, what inspiring words! And to what advantage did Holy Mass begin with that powerful verse from Psalm 124:
Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini
Qui fecit caelum et terram.

Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who made heaven and earth.
But I have digressed from the point about metallurgy. To resume: Biringuccio describes a number of different metallurgical processes, and among these is a chapter titled "Concerning the Method of Refining Silver with the Cupel and of Making Exact Assays of the Silver and Gold Contained in Masses of Metals." Here is the portion which strikes me as relevant:
Cupeling is a very useful thing... Indeed it is necessary, because it not only throws light on the work that is to be done but it also shows the truth... It is a quicker and easier way of bringing the work to the desired perfection than is afforded by the method for large quantities. ... It is the measure by which you have the certainty and safety of knowing that you have not been deceived by art or by your workmen, who had no other interest than their simple wages....
Since silver is a valuable thing and every bit is worth much, a man should not enter into refining it with closed eyes. If for no other reason this procedure is useful, indeed most useful, since without its help one cannot rightly sell or buy, or receive from or give to another.[25]
What is this marvellous technique called cupeling? It is rather horrifying: whatever one intends to test for silver content, or to extract silver from, is dropped into a pool of molten lead and then the fire is built up until the lead begins to boil – once the lead is evaporated, only the pure silver is left. The task must be repeated until it is certain that the silver is pure – expressed in the Psalm as refined seven times.
Clearly Biringuccio's technique was a hazardous and a strenuous task, working with molten metal and gaseous, poisonous lead, but it indeed suggests an underpinning of the biblical references to the purification of silver, and provides a topic for meditation on the Pope who as chief metallurgist, does not "enter into refining with closed eyes."

[22] Psalmody, Office of Readings, Tuesday Week I, quoting Ps 12(11)
[23] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY (1990) back cover.
[24] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. 14-15.
[25] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. 159.


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