The amazing properties of Chinese purple

So I’ve been celebrating my Spring Break by geeking out and watching PBS and National Geographic documentaries on Netflix. I’ve always been a big Nova fan, but now I’m starting to get into the newer series Secrets of the Dead. I just watched an episode of the latter about the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors and learned something interesting about a rather popular ancient Chinese synthetic pigment. It’s called Chinese purple and its origins are most likely rooted in ancient Chinese alchemy. The theory advanced in this episode of Secrets of the Dead is that it was first created in experiments to synthesize jade, which the ancient Chinese believed to bring immortality (I guess it was the ancient eastern version of the philosopher’s stone). Anyway, the evidence for this argument is that the chemical composition of Chinese purple is identical to the chemical composition of a form of synthetic jade from that period known as Chinese glass.

Being more well-versed in Egyptology that ancient eastern anthropology, I was familiar with a similar pigment, Egyptian blue, but this Chinese purple stuff seems a lot cooler because of an interesting discovery.

A physicist inserted a sample of Chinese purple into the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s 45-Tesla/32mm Hybrid Magnet’s core (the world’s strongest magnet) and super-cooled it in order to analyze its physical properties and found that at extreme temperatures the pigment actually loses its third dimension! Not being a physics expert (but having been raised by one, if that counts for anything) I had heard that stuff such as this was theoretically possible, but I didn’t think it had ever been observed (some scrounging on the internet confirms that this is the first time such a miraculous occurrence has been experimentally observed). Being a computer nerd, I’m quite excited about what this could mean for the future of computing. (Secrets of the Dead tells us it also has some bearing on rail travel, if you’re a real nerd.)

More about Han purple and super-science.

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