Title page of De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, 1554. (Image: University of Virginia)
Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 AD), was a physician in the Roman army, who wrote about herbs in the first century discussing the characteristics of each plant and its use. His monumental work, written in five volumes in the year 77 AD, known by its Latin title, De Materia Medica (On Medical Materials), described how to make medicine from up to five hundred plants, explaining where to find each plant, how to harvest it, how to prepare it as a drug, and which ailments it will cure.
The book was translated into Arabic in the mid-ninth century at the famous translation institute in Baghdad, the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). The original Greek manuscript, subsequently translated into several languages, described most drugs in use at the time, and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end…
The year was 1789; the place Bengal. Isaac Newton’s masterpiece Principia Mathematica was being translated for only the third time in its already 100-year-old history; this time, into Arabic. The author of this remarkable feat of scholarship was Tafazzul Husain Khan. According to a member of the ruling East India Company: “Khan… by translating the works of the immortal Newton, has conducted those imbued with Arabick literature to the fountain of all physical and astronomical knowledge.”
The connection between contemporary quantum physics and China’s ancient Terracotta Warriors is a lost pigment called Han purple. The vibrant hue appeared in the Zhou dynasty and faded out sometime near 220 AD; art didn’t see a purple as vivid until 19th-century manufacturing.
Han purple has strange properties, particularly at low temperature points. Back in 2006, researchers at Stanford, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Institute for Solid State Physics described this phenomenon as a “Flatland.” When exposed to extremely low temperatures, magnetic waves going through the pigment lose their third dimension. Recently Esther Inglis-Arkell at io9 returned to this research, explaining:
At higher temperatures, it propagates like a regular wave, traveling in three dimensions. Get under one degree Kelvin, and it no longer has a vertical component. It propagates in two dimensions only.
This fluctuating state of matter, likely caused by the pigment’s diversely layered barium copper silicate structure, isn’t seen often. We’ve examined obsolete pigments at Hyperallergic before, whether a brown made of actual mummies or poisonous arsenic greens. Han purple is one of the first known synthetic pigments, and its rarity made it a powerful color.
This is where the Terracotta Warriors come in, as the Qin dynasty funerary army retains traces of the color (although its hues largely oxidized after exhumation). Some have speculated that the purple came via the Silk Road, with information from Egypt and its famous blue traveling the distance; however, at Symmetry, a particle physics online magazine, Lori Ann White writes: “Researchers discovered that Chinese pigment-makers used lead to lower the melting point of the barium in Han Purple, a step not taken in the production of Egyptian Blue.” She goes on to say that glass makers “in ancient China may have stumbled on Han Purple while trying to develop a jade-like glass, a process that also involved lead.”
The peculiar Han purple, sourced from a byproduct and with its two-dimensional properties, may also have a brand new technological purpose: some scientists are looking to the research on it to help inform the process of building quantum computers.
Tagged as: art and science, art history, China, Terracotta Warriors