Invigilant et al.
Property Terms I
Property Terms II
Property Terms III
Shining Words I
Shining Words II
Rhetorical Devices I
Rhetorical Devices II
Rhetorical Devices III
Rhetorical Devices IV
Maxims of Equity I
Maxims of Equity II
Maxims of Equity III
An Appetite for Apatite
Bill Long 10/31/04
One source has it, concerning apatite, that "no other material is so personally involved in man...for no other mineral is so much a part of him." When we realize that the root meaning of the term apatite is "deception," we might wonder at first if the mineral not only imparts its structure but also its name to us. Do we have tendencies toward deception not only because of our "genes," but also because of our "minerals?" I guess I can't answer this question, but the presence of so much apatite or apatite-like material in our teeth and bones is mute testimony to what Philip Roth calls "the human stain" that dyes us all. But this mini-essay was not supposed to be about philosophy--it was meant to introduce us further to the fascinating world of gems. Before we get there, however, I need to write about the process of learning a new field--which gemology is for me.
Meeting Apatite and Reflecting on Gems
Anytime you take up the study of a new field, which I did for gems about two weeks ago, you are overwhelmed with terminology. Confusing terminology both defines a field and keeps unwitting poachers either off the field or in rapt admiration of those within. You find, when coming into this field that there are hundreds of gems in nature. Gems are a subset of minerals, and there are 10 categories of minerals or mineraloids in nature. Gems are found in about six of these categories, with the largest number being silicates. After you learn this you need to learn how gems are classified.
You learn that they are divided into about 10 or more categories, based on hardness, luster, refractiveness, crystal structure, etc. Then, after you learn there are ten degrees of hardness and anywhere from 10-14 degrees of luster, you realize that unless you spend a good deal of time taking notes, looking at pictures, memorizing data, and possibly even handling a lot of minerals, you will be absolutely lost.
So, you have to study real hard just to get your bearings in this new world. If you are serious about it, you have to learn not simply gemology but mineralogy and geology and petrology and a good deal of chemistry, too. But, I take solace in the fact that the number of terms is finite and the number of realities to which it all points is also finite. And not simply finite. For example, the Larousse Encyclopedia of Precious Gems lists only 191 precious gems (you count them, that's how). By comparing their list to tons of other lists around, you can probably say there are only about 250 precious gems. A lot depends, for example, whether someone might consider pink beryl, for example, as a precious gem separate from beryl or just beryl that happens to be pink.
And, you can probably also say that there are no more than about 1400-1600 minerals in the ten categories mentioned above (which include the 250 gems). And there are only about 105 or so elements. And you can learn the symbols of these elements with ease. In mastering the periodic table of elements, for example, I am reminded of the experience I had living in Kansas from 1990-96. Kansas has license plates which indicated in which county (and there are 105 of them) your car was registered. For example, I lived in Rice County for three years and Reno County for three. When I lived in the former, I had a plate with an "RC" sticker in the upper right corner and, when in Reno County, a similar "RN" sticker. I noted that the simplest farmer in Kansas knew the abbreviations of all 105 counties. Thus, if the Kansas farmer can learn which county is indicated by WY or JO or RN or KI, which matters little for actual knowledge of the universe, why can't anyone who puts his or her mind to it for a few minutes master 105 or more elements?
I also take solace from the realization that almost all of the gems or rocks studied can be touched or seen, unlike what I have been doing for the past 30 years in mastering concepts from history, philosophy, religion, literature and rhetoric. That is, though it is very difficult to "touch" gnosticism or "see" an example of philosophical idealism, it is not too difficult to look at a picture of apatite or quartz or learn the ten kinds of quartz (there really are more) or the ten types of garnet or tourmaline or beryl. You can also learn the lore of gems as well as their structure, and this is utterly cool.
There are only six crystalline structures, and you can actually learn the difference between isometric, tetragonal, hexagonal, orthorhombic, monoclinic and triclinic. You can easily learn what pleochroism is and learn why the tetragonal and hexagonal systems, for example, are dichroic while trichroism is characteristic of the last three crystal systems.
Now you don't have to learn all this stuff at once. And, I have found that it isn't the best for me just to lock myself in my room and memorize lists of 400 plus minerals before breakfast. You have to learn a little, look a little, write a little, memorize a little, read various sources, plot the different categories of things on paper, and gradually begin to define this new and interesting world. Then, you can eventually begin to use the vocabularly in a humanistic fashion, as I try to do here, as well as begin to question the foundations of the field (which I cannot yet do).
So now you have it. I am studying gems, with occasional distractions from lecturers that come through my town (to whom I listen and then write reviews) or when I have a concept on my mind, such as imprescriptibility, that I just have to sort out before moving back to my gems, or when I need to write mini-essays for my jurisprudence students in law. But now we are ready to return to apatite with, I hope, also an inspiration to master new fields of inquiry.
The only reasons we cannot master new fields is because we don't take the time and because people tell us that we should only have one "field" in life. But we can learn new things, in such a way that the resulting knowledge when combined with our original store of knowledge can open new and unexplored vistas of life. And, to those who say that we should only spend time on one field, which people have been telling me for thirty-years, I say, "Why?" Certainly it is easier to do so, and you get a job and promotions and lots of recognition from the people in your field. But, what if you just are inclined to wander in life to master other things? What is so bad about that?
I must really get to apatite now, or I will have to refund your money.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long