Lessons from Faberge: Skill Trumps Modern Technology

Today’s guest blogger is Neal Immega. He has a Ph.D. in Paleontology and is a Master Docent here at HMNS. In his post below – originally printed in the Museum’s volunteer newsletter – Neal discusses the lessons that can be learned from Puabi, Pharaohs and Peter Carl Fabergé.

I sometimes think that I can surely produce objects that are superior to those on display in our halls. After all, my technology has to be superior because it is thousands of years more recent and that should make up for my lack of training in whatever skill is being used. I do get commissions to produce “Nealafacts,” things for the touch carts that mimic ancient originals. I fancy that my copper chisel would please a workman on Pharaoh’s tomb, but what about more difficult things? I can just see my father, raising one eyebrow at me, as if to say “Can you do it?”

The exhibit “Royal Tombs of Ur” contained drilled agate beads, some more than 2 inches long and with walls about a millimeter thick. I fancy myself an expert in making jewelry from agate but I would have trouble drilling thin-walled beads like those even with sintered diamond tools. The craftsmen from Ur accomplished this task 4,500 years ago!

In the “Birth of Christianity” exhibit there was a limestone drinking cup that appeared to have been turned on a lathe, except that its handle stuck out and would have gotten in the way of the turning process. In the Egyptian exhibit that used to be on the first floor, there was a pot (borrowed from the Menil Collection) that was made out of hard igneous porphyry. It also looked like it had been turned on a lathe but, this time, it had hanging lugs would get in the way. I wonder how they did that?

My most recent humbling experience comes from the Fabergė exhibit.  One signature Fabergė technology is transparent enamel over patterned metal. The process used to draw the swirling lines on the metal is called guilloche after the gentleman who created the process in order to make banknotes hard to counterfeit. The process uses gears that run inside of other gears to make the pattern – you can readily see the mechanism if you look at the modern toy called a Spirograph. Select a toothed wheel, a toothed circle for it to run in, and a position inside the toothed wheel for your pencil and, wow! you get perfect mathematical loops. If you used a cutting tool, you could mark the engraving plate used to print bank notes or stock certificates. Though the US Mint probably has a much better ruling engine (because it draws on printing plates) the process is the same.

Spirograph, a plastic toy used to draw curves.
Picture taken from a specimen produced and
old in the USSR (kept in author’s private collection). 
Photo by: Alexei Kouprianov

Marking up bank note printing plates is comparatively easy compared to ruling this little egg.  This is because it has the pattern turned all the way around it, above and below it. I bet there is a pattern follower that can track about an object but I do not know.

The engraved surface on the egg has been enameled:  covered with ground up glass and metal oxides, all melted together. The Faberge factories were famous for the fancy colors they could produce. Ladies of the court would have dresses made to complement the new colors. I suppose it just would not do to clash with your cigarette case color. The large number of colors (maybe 170) made it possible for the factory to claim that each object is unique.  The Fabergé craftsmen used transparent but colored enamels to allow the fancy guilloche patterns to show through.

I guess it is a bit retro to be using machines built in 1920, but the results are fabulous. Almost no one but the high end watch companies still use them because it can take an engraver many hours to do a watch face. Embossing a finish on metal with a hydraulic press is a much more common technique. If you need to do better, computer-controlled milling machines are now priced within the range of many shops (say $20,000) . We might expect to see some really new designs from these in the future.

Want to try your hand at guilloche? There is an interactive site where you can vary all the parameters and produce the most amazing patterns in real time. This is what I wanted – the ability to create an infinite number of patterns without the cost of carving them into metal. The only problem is how to transfer the pattern on to metal, but that is a problem for a 21st century Fabergé shop.

I think my father would be pleased with my discovery that there are no shortcuts to producing quality work. A craftsman today might have better tools than someone in the past, but skill does seem to trump technology.

Rats, I guess there are no easy solutions.

If you are interested in reading more by our guest blogger Neal, click here to read his previous post.


Puabi Beads picture

Rights to use Puabi beads photo.

Guilloche explained

Discussion on the technique of creating Faberge designs

A nice photograph of a ruling engine.


Computer controlled Milling Machine

Hobby Grade Milling machine

Mathematically construct guilloche patterns

Beautiful, but Dangerous: the Fascinating Pitcher Plant

Nepenthes miranda at the CBC

I was watching Life on the Discovery Channel, and was happy to see that their special on plants talked quite a bit about carnivorous plants and how they have evolved. I find it fascinating that even in areas where plants are unable to get the nutrients necessary for life from the soil, some species have found a way to flourish by evolving specialized means of catching prey to supplement their nutritional needs.

One plant family in particular that has developed a specialized method of catching prey is the Nepenthes, also known as the tropical pitcher plant family. Shown in the picture on the right, they use their extravagantly colored pitchers, along with nectar glands on the underside of the pitcher lid, to attract insects, who then fall in and are quickly digested by the plant. Although insects make up the majority of the Nepenthes’ diet, they have also been known to digest reptiles and small mammals such as mice and rats.

Unopened Pitcher

Nepenthes are native to the Old World tropics, specifically the Malay Archipelago, and have their highest diversity of species in Borneo. They are typically liana-forming plants that climb in the trees and have a very shallow root system, making it hard for them to take up the nutrients they need to survive. So, over time the pitcher plant has developed what is called a pit-fall trap at the tip of each leaf.

The Trap is Set

It is believed that the characteristic pitcher started out as a simple curl at the tip of the leaf which collected dead leaves and insects, and over many generations has turned into the pitchers we are so fascinated with today. The pitchers form at the tip of each leaf, and once mature, the lid of the pitcher, or operculum, opens to begin catching it’s prey. The newly opened pitcher is already filled with a syrupy liquid, made by the plant, which is a combination of water, a biopolymer (to help trap and drown the insects) and digestive enzymes that are acidic enough to digest a large fly in a matter of a couple days. The pitcher walls are also coated with a slick wax, and sometimes a grooved pattern that makes it nearly impossible to escape.  One species, Nepenthes bicalcarata, has even developed fangs on the under side of the pitcher lid to snag any would be thieves trying to steal their daily catch.

If you would like to see some of these amazing plants up close and personal, come by and see the newly added Nepenthes display inside the Cockrell Buterfly Center rainforest. We have three varieties - Nepenthes miranda, Nepenthes ventrata and Nepenthes merrilliana, and if you’re really lucky you may catch these fascinating pitcher plants at feeding time!

The Roche Limit: Why does Saturn have rings?

At the George Observatory and just about anywhere else people gather to look at the night sky, Saturn’s rings are among the most popular and most captivating sights. Their significance, however, goes beyond the beauty that might jumpstart a lifetime of interest in astronomy.  Studying and understanding the rings has been an ongoing affair, a reminder that science does not proceed to the ‘right answer’ and stop, but always continues as new questions are raised.  Although astronomers began to understand the rings of Saturn in the 1600s we’re still not quite done learning about them.

Many of us are familiar with tides.  We know that just as Earth’s gravity pulls on the moon, the moon’s gravity pulls on the Earth.  Seas rise and fall due to the moon’s influence (and, to a lesser extent, the sun’s), causing high and low tides.  But tides affect solid material too.  For example, tidal attractions from the Earth de-spun the moon until it began to rotate (spin) at the same rate at which it orbits Earth, thus keeping the same face to Earth.  This effect, called tidal locking, has occurred with all other large moons in the solar system.

For any given massive object (for example a planet) and satellite (a moon) in orbit around it, we can define a limit, called the Roche limit, inside of which the tidal forces from that object would tear the satellite apart.   A large moon orbiting inside the Roche limit will be destroyed. The Earth’s Roche limit is 18,470 km (11,470 miles). If our moon ever ventured within this Roche limit, it would be pulled apart by tidal forces and the Earth would have rings. The four gaseous outer planets do have their rings systems inside of their respective Roche limit.

This video depicts how a moon caught inside Roche’s limit could form rings
Can’t see the video? Click here.

The four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) each have material inside of their Roche limits; this is why they each have rings while the smaller inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) do not.  Of the gas giants, Saturn happened to have the most material inside of its Roche limit, and therefore has a more elaborate set of rings than the others do.

The rings of Saturn are 73,000 km wide but only 10 meters thick.  They are not solid; many NASA spacecraft (see photos from the Cassini spacecraft taken this year) have flown right through them several times without incident.  The particles in the rings, made of mostly water ice, range in size from 1 cm to 10 meters in diameter.

Ring Spokes
Creative Commons License photo credit: ridingwithrobots

Saturn has seven rings designated A-G, along with a Phoebe ring identified by Cassini in 2009.  Note that the order of the rings from inside out is D-C-B-A-F-G-E; the rings were named in the order they were discovered.  When you look at Saturn through a ground-based telescope, rings A and B are most apparent (with A on the outside).  These rings were visible to Galileo, although his crude telescope in 1610 could not quite resolve what they were. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens was the first to describe the rings as a disk around Saturn.  In 1675, Giovanni Cassini discovered the gap between rings A and B now known as the Cassini Division.  Any particle orbiting here would align with the moon Mimas every other orbit.  This makes such an orbit unstable, resulting in the gap.

The much dimmer C ring inside of the B ring is harder observe; William and George Bond discovered it in 1850.  Rings D, E, F, and G were unknown until the mid to late 20th century.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ethan Hein

Still the question remains, how long has Saturn had its rings?  The initial assumption was that the rings formed with the planet and the rest of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.  That is, raw material too close to Saturn was unable to accrete into a moon due to excessive tidal forces.  Or, a small moonlet happened to orbit within the Roche limit, and was pulled apart due to these tidal forces.  However, scientists struggled to explain why the rings, made of 99.95 water ice, remain so bright.  It seemed that after 4.6 billion years, the ice particles in Saturn’s rings would have gathered so much dust as to appear dark (like the rings of Jupiter).  Instead, Saturn’s rings are bright enough to significantly enhance Saturn’s brightness; Saturn is over 2.5 times brighter in our sky when the rings are fully open to us than when the rings are edge-on.  In calculating how long it should take infalling dust to darken Saturn’s rings, scientists revised their estimate of the rings’ age; many considered them to be only about 200 million years old.  By this estimate, the rings would have come into existence about the time the first dinosaurs thrived on the Earth, long after Saturn and the other planets had formed.

However, the favored explanation today is that the rings resulted from the disruption of a moon slightly bigger than Mimas (about 400 km in diameter).  Impacts capable of breaking apart moons of that size were common during the Late Heavy Bombardment about 4 billion years ago and have been much, much rarer since, so it seems likely that Saturn’s rings are about that old.  Further, we have observed that at times ring material can clump together and then be dispersed by collisions.  This process, in which ice not exposed to infalling dust is periodically re-released, could account for the continued brightness of the rings.

Originally slated to end in 2008, NASA’s extraordinarily successful Cassini mission to Saturn has been extended through 2017.  As it began near Saturn’s equinox (2009), when the sun was directly overhead at Saturn’s equator and thus in the ring plane, the extended mission is called the Cassini Equinox Mission.  The new science objectives for Cassini’s extended mission include making measurements of the rings’ mass by having the spacecraft orbit in between Saturn and its innermost rings.  Scientists will be able to observe how much Cassini deviates from an ideal orbit around Saturn, and thus estimate the mass in the rings.   This, in turn, will help us resolve the mystery of their origin.

To find Saturn in our spring 2010 sky, face southeast at dusk. Earth aligned with Saturn back on March 22, putting Saturn in our sky all night long. Since then, Earth has moved out of alignment with Saturn, such that the ringed planet is no longer up all night but is instead high in the evening sky and more convenient to observe.  Although it is getting slightly dimmer each night as Earth moves away from it, Saturn still outshines most stars in the sky.  Saturn remains in the evening sky, shifting slightly towards the west each night, through September 2010.

If you look at Saturn through a telescope this month and next, you will have a chance the see the rings as thin and edge-on as they’ll be for the next 15 years.  Earth was exactly in the plane of Saturn’s rings in September 2009.  However, Earth and Saturn were also on opposite sides of the sun at that time, so none of us could see Saturn then.  In spring 2010, Earth once again approaches (but does not quite cross) Saturn’s ring plane.  Thus, this April and May you can watch the rings of Saturn get slightly thinner each night, appearing thinnest in late May.

Whole-Hole Catalogue: The Horned Meat-eater Ceratosaurus

Here’s the skull and life portrait of the carnivorous dinosaur Ceratosaurus, from the Late Jurassic of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.  It’s the only meat-eater with a tall, sharp-edged horn on its nose.

(And it’s my very favorite dino of all time – isn’t it just lovely?).

Check out the holes in the skull and the organs that fill the holes in life.

The nostril is no surprise, it’s the oval slit up front.

The eye is in the third big hole from the front.

The very big hole between nostril and eye is for the complex air chambers connected to the throat – birds have these chambers too.

The triangular hole behind the eye was filled with jaw muscle.

The eardrum was located far aft, behind the muscle hole, tucked under a little ledge made by the skull.

Who had a stronger bite, Ceratosaurus or Tyrannosaurus? Compare the size of the holes for jaw muscles……..

Interested in learning more about dinosaur skulls? Check out my previous blog.