Posted in Science & Nature


Next to the discovery of fire and the wheel, the discovery of metals and the mastery of metalworking was arguably one of the most important advances for prehistoric humanity. Metal was far superior to rock, clay, wood or any other natural resource known to man in terms of strength and sharpness. Because of these properties, metal soon became a valuable commodity. It can be seen how much impact metal had on humanity’s history, considering that the stages of human prehistory were named after the type of metal (or lack thereof) that was mastered then: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The discovery of metal came in two ways.

One was through mining, where prehistoric people discovered that shiny, hard objects were buried in the ground. They later discovered that with enough heat, they could melt the metal out of ores (copper and tin were the first metals to be gathered this way) and mould them into any shape. After smelting technologies developed, our ancestors found that mixing copper and tin produced bronze – a much stiffer and more durable metal than either of its components. A mixture of metals is called an alloy. This was the start of the Bronze Age. Bronze was extremely useful and people quickly came up with innovative ways of using it, such as farming equipment and weapons.

Some other metals used during this age were: gold, silver, lead and mercury. It is likely that gold was one of the earliest metals used as it comes in pure nuggets and is easily workable thanks to its chemistry. However, given that gold is rather soft and was treated more as jewellery than a practical metal, it was not used as much to advance technology.

The second way mankind came upon metals was in the form of “gifts from the gods”. A prime example is iron. Although the Iron Age began around 1200BC at the earliest, there are iron objects (mainly jewelleries) that have been dated back to 5000BC. How could this be? This was before mankind had the technology to smelt iron ores (which is more difficult and needs much higher temperatures than copper or tin ores), so the iron could not have been gathered through mining. The answer to this conundrum lies in meteorites. About 6% of meteorites contain iron and nickel, which prehistoric civilisations may have stumbled onto and taken the shiny pieces back to their tribe. The people would have considered the gathered iron a “gift from the gods”, as it had crashed down from the “heavens”. Because of this reason, iron was considered more valuable than gold or silver and was frequently used for jewellery. This is reflected in Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction short story, The Songs of Distant Earth, where sentient sea scorpions hoard metal objects stolen from the humans and wear it proudly as a badge of honour.

The history of iron and how it was believed to be a gift from the heavens relates to a common superstition of how finding a penny (or any coin) represents good luck. As “metal” (mainly iron) was considered a holy gift bestowed unto mankind, finding a piece of metal was believed to be a blessing and some form of protection against evil. This is also represented in various traditions such as hanging horseshoes over doorways and wearing charm bracelets with metal on it.

Although it sounds like a silly superstition, it clearly shows how metals have been an integral part of the development of civilisation.

Posted in History & Literature

Wedding Ring

The practice of wearing jewellery to signify the sacred bonds of marriage dates back to ancient Egypt, where chains and bracelets were worn. This eventually evolved into wearing a ring, where the circle symbolised endless love while the open centre represented the doorway to an unknown future. This practice spread to the ancient Greeks, then the ancient Romans, where it became a commonplace tradition around the 2nd century. The Romans called the wedding ring annulus pronubis and it was tradition for a man to give a ring to a woman at the betrothal ceremony to symbolise his eternal devotion.

A wedding ring is most often worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, so-called the “ring finger”. It is uncertain when this tradition arose, as various cultures chose different fingers on different hands for the wedding ring. One theory suggests that the tradition arose from the ancient Romans believing that the fourth finger contained a vein called the vena amoris – a vein that connects directly from the finger to the heart. As the heart is a symbol of love, placing a ring on this finger symbolised eternal love. However, this is a false belief for two reasons. Firstly, every vein, by definition, returns to the heart. Thus, it makes no sense that the fourth finger is special. Secondly, there is no such thing as the vena amoris, with all the veins in each finger having an identical structure (common palmar digital veins). As the circulatory system was not known during ancient times, it is likely that this story is a myth that arose sometime after the Middle Ages when a romantic story was matched with the tradition. It is also likely that jewellery companies marketed such a story to promote wedding ring sales (much like the marketing of the diamond engagement rings).

Posted in Science & Nature


The hardest object on the Earth is diamond. A diamond is famous not only for its hardness but also its luxuriousness and unique lustre. One might call it the king of all jewels. Would you believe then that such a beautiful, tough gemstone is made of the same thing as charcoal and graphite? Diamond is crystallised carbon where the carbon atoms are neatly arranged in a pyramid lattice. Charcoal and graphite are also made of carbon but the carbon atoms are placed in a different configuration, giving them a different look and characteristics. This unique lattice shape can only be achieved under extreme pressure (such as in the mantle of the Earth or in a meteorite). Thus, a diamond is just carbon that has endured stress well.

If diamond is the hardest material, then how can one cut it? The answer is simple – use a diamond. As it is near impossible to polish or cut without knowing this, diamonds were only used in the form of ores until the modern age. In 1919, a mathematician named Marcel Tolkowsky calculated the optimum proportions of a diamond cut to obtain the best lustre. The first time he struck the diamond with a nail, he fainted from the shock. He succeeded the second time and devised the round brilliant cut used most popularly nowadays.

Diamond is especially used in engagement rings. About 80% of all engagement rings sold in the United States are diamond rings. This may be because the toughness of diamond symbolises undying love, but another key reason is due to diamond syndicates and their marketing campaign. Even until the 1930’s, there was a tradition of women keeping their virginity until their engagement. Thus, if a man proposed to a woman, took her virginity and broke off the engagement, the woman had a legal right to sue the man. Diamond syndicate De Beers thought that this tradition was an excellent money-making scheme. They planted the idea that offering a diamond ring when proposing put a price on the woman’s virginity and encouraged men to buy more expensive rings to show their love and respect for the woman. This manipulative advertising campaign was a great success and the price of diamond skyrocketed very quickly. Now, a diamond ring is almost an essential item when proposing. Thanks to these companies, there are still many African children who are being slaved in diamond mines.