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The World's First Woman Engineer
By Stephen Bertman, Ph.D.
The first woman engineer in history was a Jewish chemical engineer named Maria, who lived two thousand years ago during one of the most intellectually creative periods of ancient times.
After the Golden Age of Greece ended in the 5th century B.C.E., the ideals of Greek culture did not die. Instead, a charismatic general and king named Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) went on to conquer the Near East and found colonies throughout his vast empire to spread the wisdom of Greek civilization. The single most famous city he built was one he named for himself: Alexandria, Egypt. During the course of the centuries that followed, Alexandria rose to preeminence as the cultural capital of the Mediterranean world until it was eclipsed by Imperial Rome. In Alexandria's harbor stood a magnificent granite lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the legendary "Seven Wonders of the World", while inside the city itself was a vast royal library containing the collected wisdom of the human race. Nearby was an ancient think-tank called the Museum (named for the Muses, the mythical patrons of the arts), where the greatest scholars and scientists of the day gathered and conducted their research.
Many diverse groups were to settle in Alexandria - native Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, early Christians, and Jews - and many streams of philosophy and religion blended together in a multicultural milieu called Hellenistic civilization. New ideas were in the air, replacing traditional religions with novel, personal approaches to the search for spiritual fulfillment. Epicureanism challenged the concept of gods ruling an orderly universe, arguing instead that in a random universe it was the individual's obligation to seek his own pleasure. Stoicism emphasized personal pain and the need for people to transcend it through philosophical discipline. By the 3rd century C.E., another Greek philosophy, Neo-Platonism, appeared. Expanding on Plato's theory that reality as we know it is an imperfect copy of ideal intellectual forms, Neo-Platonism added a spiritual dimension, proposing that it is the duty of the soul to rise above its sensory environment in order to aspire to a vision of higher things and the divine "One" from which all things come. This philosophical belief would go on to influence Christianity and lead to the theological conviction that our flesh inhibits our spiritual salvation, a salvation that can only be accomplished by declaring war against our carnal appetites and the materialistic objects of their desire. Originating among the Jews of Hellenistic Egypt and spreading to Egypt's early Christian community came Gnosticism, the view that there is a special kind of spiritual knowledge that can only be obtained by personal experience, a transcendent knowledge that is the only true path to salvation.
The Birth of Alchemy
This notion of a secret, transformative knowledge known only to the initiated, a knowledge that could change what was base into what was pure, would radically alter the direction of ancient chemistry, changing it from what it had been, a purely practical pursuit, to a mystical mission in which practitioners, following arcane formulas, attempted to transform base metals into precious ones. Indeed, some of these chemical "recipes" still survive, preserved in ancient Egyptian papyri dating to the early Roman Empire as well as in the fragmentary "lab notes" of once-famous Greco-Roman alchemists.
Linguistically, the art called "alchemy" probably originated from the native name of Egypt (kemet, "the black land"), the land of dark, fertile soil in which alchemy germinated. The "al" in "alchemy" would be later added by its Islamic practitioners, for in the Arabic language "al" means "the". Stripped of that Arabic prefix, the root "chem" would go on to become the root of our word "chemistry".
The chief goal of ancient alchemists was to create gold. To the ancient Egyptians, gold was the warming color of the sun, the radiant source of all life. The flesh of the immortal gods, moreover, was believed to be of gold, the one substance the Egyptians knew does not decay. The masks and coffins of their mummies were therefore gilded or crafted of solid gold in order to signify that the souls of the departed had become immortal like the gods. By a process of cultural assimilation, even the Greco-Roman residents of Alexandrian Egypt had begun to adopt the practice of using gilded mummy cases and masks for their own funerals. And to poets both Greek and Roman, the earliest and most perfect age in mankind's history had long been celebrated as golden. What better symbol, then, of humanity's quest for immortality and perfection than gold?
Of course, for those of a more mercenary temperament, the thought of transforming baser metals into precious gold - or at least fooling people into thinking it was pure gold -- was too tempting to resist. To stop counterfeiting, in fact, the 3rd century C.E. Roman Emperor Diocletian had to order all alchemical scrolls burnt. Alas, even spiritual quests, it seems, can be corrupted by man's baser instincts!
Greek philosophers of the 6th and early 5th centuries B.C.E. had already laid the groundwork for alchemy by asserting that all matter was one, albeit with different proportions of earth, air, fire, and water. All one had to do was alter the proportions within a given sample of matter and its properties would change as though by magic. The trick was to "coax" one material into turning into another by gently guiding it through a series of critical steps.
Gold posed special problems to the alchemist or forger because it was so heavy: if copper could somehow be made to look less red (by mixing it, for example, with other metals like tin or zinc) it might simulate the color of gold but would weigh significantly less. Another alternative was to blend real gold with copper and then apply sulphides to leach out the copper on the alloy's surface. Silver, on the other hand, was easier to replicate because its weight was comparable to copper's. Accordingly, copper was blended with tin, zinc, or lead to give it a more silvery look, or was superficially whitened with a rinse of white arsenious oxide. One of the alchemists' most celebrated feats was "diplosis," the apparent "doubling" of an amount of pure gold by blending it with both copper and silver in equal amounts so as to retain its essentially golden color.
Maria the Jewess
Many alchemists were not nefarious forgers, but sincerely believed in the mystical potentialities of their art. One of the most renowned was called Maria the Jewess, "the founding mother of western alchemy." Zosimus (late 3rd-early 4th century C.E.), the greatest Greco-Roman authority on alchemy, referred to her reverentially as the "divine" Maria and spoke of her as living long before his own time, perhaps as much as five centuries earlier according to one estimate, though we cannot be sure.
Significantly, Maria is one of four female chemical engineers from the Hellenistic Age whose names survive, the others being Cleopatra (not the queen), Paphnutia, and Theosebeia, Zosimus' own sister. The fact that Maria (or Miriam, to give her her rightful Hebrew name) was Jewish (as may Zosimus and Theosebeia have been also) reinforces what Zosimus himself tells us elsewhere: that the Jews living in Hellenistic Egypt had learned the technology of chemistry from the Egyptians, but had transformed the science into a mystic art under the tutelage of God. Since there is no trace of alchemy in Jewish tradition prior to the Hellenistic period, we may be justified to attributing its rise to the influence of Hellenistic philosophical thought on Alexandria's Jews coupled with the influence of the Gnostic tendencies that were then present in Judaism. Maria's own mysticism is revealed in a cryptic utterance attributed to her in which she described the principle underlying the transmutation of matter: "One becomes two, two becomes three, and by means of the third the fourth achieves unity; thus two are but one." Known as the "Axiom of Maria," the notion profoundly influenced psychologist Carl Jung who, in Psychology and Alchemy, used it as a metaphor to describe our need to reintegrate the scattered parts of our personalities in order to live harmonious lives.
Maria's ingenuity is demonstrated by her invention of three remarkable pieces of laboratory equipment: the balneum Mariae (as it came to be called in Latin), the kerotakis, and the tribikos.
The balneum Mariae (Maria's bathtub) consisted of an outer vessel in which water was heated to boiling and an inner vessel designed to hold a substance meant to be safely heated to no higher than that temperature. In effect, what Maria invented (though some Classicists today would challenge her claim to fame) was the now-familiar double-boiler commonly used in kitchens for such non-mystical purposes as melting chocolate. To French chefs, it's known as a bain-marie. Ironically in French parlance today, une femme au bain-marie is slang for a woman with a double-boiler for brains, in short, a "dumb blonde" - certainly an unjustified sobriquet for Maria herself since she was anything but dumb!
Named for the palette on which Hellenistic painters melted and blended colored wax, the kerotakis consisted of a flat pan inside a covered container. As the pan was heated and the substance on it melted and vaporized (as in a modern reflux condenser), the trapped vapors rose and chemically reacted with materials that were suspended above them.
The tribikos, another one of Maria's ingenious inventions, was perhaps the first still in history. It consisted of three parts: a vessel in which a chemical mixture was heated, a closed cooling chamber in which the vapor condensed, and three tubes through which the distilled liquid poured out into a catch-basin.
Maria's chief aim in using her equipment was to create gold from other metals. In a very real way, to an alchemist like Maria and to her contemporaries, truth was in the eye of the beholder: if it looked like gold and felt like gold, in the absence of all other tests it was gold. After all, the Greek scientist and engineer Archimedes would not discover the principle of specific gravity for telling gold from silver until sometime in the 3rd century B.C., but even that discovery would not have dissuaded the dedicated from pursuing the quest or turning other metals into gold.
Maria seems to have done so in two ways. The first method was to heat copper (or copper and lead) over sulfur in the hope that the sulfurous vapor would make the "shadow" in the copper disappear and leave pure gold behind. Another was to make an amalgam of copper and 13% mercury, a method that has actually been used by jewelers in modern times to simulate real gold. Maria is also said to have succeeded in making precious stones "glow," either by superheating them or treating them with a phosphorescent substance.
Hellenistic alchemists were responsible for some eighty other pieces of chemical apparatus employed in modern laboratories. They include baths, beakers, burners, crucibles, dishes, filters, flasks, furnaces, jars, ladles, mortars and pestles, pans, phials, stirring rods, and strainers. Even though these ancient prototypes were originally invented to serve purposes that would not be termed strictly scientific today, the mystical goals of alchemist like Maria unquestionably led to practical advances that propelled the progress of chemistry as a true science.
Easy as it is from our chronological perspective to deride the misguided efforts of the alchemists, we need to acknowledge that their underlying mission to interpret and manipulate the fundamental structure of matter still remains at the very heart of science. Indeed, alchemical research would persist for almost two thousand years after the Hellenistic Age, and no less a genius than Sir Isaac Newton would engage in exploring its mysteries, conducting countless experiments and writing over a half million words on the subject.
In fact, Maria's ancient goal is still alive, though entrusted to others' hands. Though the chemical engineers of today no longer strive to turn base metals into gold as did Maria some two thousand years ago, the quest to transmute matter has in fact been fulfilled by physicists using cyclotrons, nuclear reactors, and particle accelerators, who so far have created at least 29 synthetic elements. Significantly, it is from just such a synthetic element, plutonium 239, that the fate of today's civilized world now hangs.
This article is adapted from the author's new book, published by Prometheus Books, entitled THE GENESIS OF SCIENCE: THE STORY OF GREEK IMAGINATION. He is professor emeritus of Classics at Canada's University of Windsor.
from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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