The Metaphysics of Silicon

An essay by Tamas Revbiro

Let's play a game. I'll tell you some words, one by one, and I will pick them from the periodic table of chemical elements compiled by Mendeleev. You think over what comes to mind when that word is mentioned. I'll help a little at the beginning.

Okay, let's start.

  • IRON? — Blacksmith. Hephaestus, Vulcan. Tools, horseshoes, arms. Ares, Mars. Primitive warfare. Conquest. With iron and bread. Iron bars, handcuffs, chains, prison, violence. Will, discipline, strictness. Iron Chancellor, Iron Lady. Railways. Heavy industry, conquest of the Earth. Swords and plows.

  • COAL? — Fire, warmth. The foundation of life. Carbohydrates, protein, cellulose. Variable forms of appearance from soft graphite to diamond. Graphite: graphic arts, visual representation. Diamond: a pyramid-shaped crystal: the hardest, the rarest, the most precious. Coal mining, an underground world, Hades, hell. Steam engines, locomotives, heavy industry.

  • COPPER? — Cuprum, the metal of Cyprus. Aphrodite. Cannons and bells: war and peace, Mars and Venus. Sophisticated warfare and brass beds, brass door handles in Victorian homes . Statues of bronze. Bronze age, Rodin. Brass wires in electric cables. Coins, small change.

  • OXYGEN? — Air, breath. Life. H2O. Water, the birthplace of life. Jean Michel Jarre. Protective ozone shield around the planet Earth.

  • MERCURY? — Quick and dangerous. A merchant and a thief: Mercurius, Hermes. The smallest, fastest planet in the Solar System. Wednesday (Mercredi), the middle of the week. Quicksilver. Alchemists. Mercury vapor in street lights.

  • GOLD? — Pure richness. Universal symbol of value. Gold Age. The Sun.

  • SILICON? — Search me.

    The symbolism of the elements is amazingly rich. They are connected with gods, legends, and trends of cultural history. However for some reason silicon has been forgotten. It has no god, no legends, no mythology.

    And yet it is the second most common of all the elements. There is only one — oxygen — that surpasses it in quantity on Earth. What then is the reason that this immeasurably abundant substance has known so little renown? Nature offers an inexhaustible supply of silicon, and this mineral has played an amazingly important role in discovering the material world. It is too late now to create a legend for silicon, but it is still possible to pay our tribute.

    Early in the 19th century, W. H. Wollaston discovered a metal that he named "palladium" after the goddess of learning and science, Pallas Athena. He was wrong when he did so. It is silicon which is entitled to receive this name. All human knowledge that was acquired by the use of a telescope or a microscope, test tubes or lab bottles, eye glasses or computers, is really the silicon's child. Silicon is the element of knowledge.

    The name silicon has its roots in the Latin word silex or silicis , meaning flint stone. In its pure form it is very rare, but there is silicon in almost every kind of rock — and in sand. The sand of barren, useless, dangerously growing deserts offers silicon in unbelievable quantities.

    The sand that has covered and thus protected the enigma of all enigmas, the Sphinx, the temples, the ancient monuments, sculptures and inscriptions of ancient Egypt — even the Rosetta stone itself.

    Sand, silicon, is the raw material of glass production and glass is unique because, although it appears to be solid, physical science nevertheless regards it as a liquid because it lacks crystal structure.

    But for glass we couldn't even look out of the window. Thanks to glass, we are informed about the events of the outside world from the security of our home. It was a glass lens that Leeuwenhoek put in his microscope, Galilei put in his telescope. There are glass lenses in our spectacles. The chemical laboratories use glass test tubes and phials. The picture tubes of our television sets and computer monitors are also made of glass. For centuries, the measurement of time was done by sand in the hourglass — a nice example of a fruitless mother's and a useless child's reunion.

    And, of course, silicon is the raw material for the semiconductors, main units of the computer chip. Silicon is the substance of knowledge.

    To manufacture the lenses of my glasses, maybe a handful of sand was required. Less than that was needed for the processor within my computer. I need the former to observe the world. I need the latter to write down what I have observed.

    I wonder, how many processors could be made from all the sand in the Sahara desert?

    Nature, as if trying to mock us, dumped on us the endless opportunity to knowledge. As if saying, "You want to discover your world, guys? Okay, take that." This gesture is like an exaggerated caricature. Or like someone shouting at the top of his voice: The world can be learned! Now it's plain to see what we can do with all our learning.

    Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, and knowledge is power. When you know someone well enough, you have power over him. From then on, you can hurt him if you want and if it is within your strength. Wounds caused in ignorance are smaller and heal faster than those that were caused knowingly and willingly.

    Is it not the reason why the fruits of the tree of knowledge were forbidden for man?

    "The world can be learned", is what silicon shouts. This is the message that rolls down the sides of volcanoes, howls in the desert winds, and looms over us in the rocks and cliffs of the mountains. This message has tremendous power; mankind was not able to get rid of its spell in the past centuries. To possess and/or to know — these two urges have driven us (from where?) to the place where we are now.

    The true value of knowledge as such is nicely represented by the momentous symbolism of the phony female breasts enhanced by what else? Silicon.

    Yet there is another message in the other pan of the balance; a quiet but persistently urging message, saying "gnothi seauton" — know thyself.

    And there is no Mendeleev to compile a periodic table for the substances that are required to do this.

  • Published in the Hungarian
    literary weekly Élet és Irodalom
    on 7. November 1997.
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