The Mystery of Red Mercury

Safi al-Safi, an unaffiliated rebel and small-time smuggler specializing in weapons, antiquities and forged documents, sat in an open-air cafe beside the Syrian-Turkish border. He was smoking scented tobacco from a water pipe while discussing the cross-border mercury trade. ‘‘Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,’’ he said. ‘‘And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.’’

The Doomsday Scam by C.J. Chivers in The New York Times.

On the borderline between science and magic is a mythical substance called Red Mercury, which displays the most convenient problem-solving characteristics of both: It can be combined with conventional fissile materials to create a miniaturized atomic bomb, but it can also be used as an aphrodisiac. If you paint it on the side of an aircraft, that plane becomes a undetectable to radar. Worn as a charm, it protects against the evil eye, but it can also be used in conjuration. What can’t it do?

Chivers’ article discusses the history of this completely made-up substance while cutting back and forth to an unscrupulous smuggler who’s been asked to obtain some for a group of well-known terrorists.

I vaguely remember something called Red Mercury being used a Macguffin in some video game or other, but I didn’t realize just how common a device it was.

Frustration, Childhood

“Gradually I came to know where I was, and I tried to express my wants to those who could gratify them, yet could not, because my wants were inside me, and they were outside, nor had they any power of getting into my soul. And so I made movements and sounds, signs like my wants, the few I could, the best I could; for they were not really like my meaning. And when I was not obeyed, because people did not understand me, or because they would not do me harm, I was angry, because elders did not submit to me, because freemen would not slave for me, and I avenged myself on them by tears.”

— St. Augustine

Inauguration Day

“Well, John, it’s still a little too early to be sure, but this is how I see the next four years playing out: On inauguration day George W. Bush will take the oath of office and assume the mantle of leader of the free world, restoring his father’s fallen dynasty, and, to insure his legitimacy, Chief Justice Rehnquist will anoint his brow with chrisolm. Doves will be released, and lambs will be slaughtered. Bush will mount a golden chariot, then, with his aged squire, Dick Cheney, holding a laurel wreath o’er his master’s furrowed brow, the man who would be boy-king will take his destined throne, and in a much-needed show of strength he will drive his enemies before him like leaves before a storm. He will make whores of our wives and slaves of our children. He will appoint a horse to the senate. He will have the oceans whipped for daring to turn their tides without his leave, and while gangs of willowy young boys rub his body with perfumes from Persia, and the fat rendered from the corpses of the persecuted poor, all about the fevered crowds will stare worshipfully at their unknowing, unseeing, girlishly-giggling idiot emperor’s head. End of day one. Now, day two…”

— Stephen Colbert

Bad Metaphors, Inexactitude

“In turning the pages of one of the papers containing such a light and unsympathetic treatment of Tennyson, my eye catches the following sentence:

By the light of modern science and thought, we are in a position to see that each normal human being in some way repeats historically the life of the human race.

“This is a very typical modern assertion; that is, it is an assertion for which there is not and never has been a single spot or speck of proof. We know precious little about what the life of the human race has been; and none of our scientific conjectures about it bear the remotest resemblance to the actual growth of a child.

“According to this theory, a baby begins by chipping flints and rubbing sticks together to find fire. One so often sees babies doing this. About the age of five the child, before the delighted eyes of his parents, founds a village community. By the time he is eleven it has become a small city state, the replica of ancient Athens. Encouraged by this, the boy proceeds, and before he is fourteen has founded the Roman Empire. But now his parents have a serious set-back. Having watched him so far, not only with pleasure, but with a very natural surprise, they must strengthen themselves to endure the spectacle of decay. They have now to watch their child going through the decline of the Western Empire and the Dark Ages. They see the invasion of the Huns and that of the Norsemen chasing each other across his expressive face. He seems a little happier after he has ‘repeated’ the Battle of Chalons and the unsuccessful Siege of Paris ; and by the time he comes to the twelfth century, his boyish face is as bright as it was of old when he was ‘repeating’ Pericles or Camillus.

“I have no space to follow this remarkable demonstration of how history repeats itself in the youth; how he grows dismal at twenty-three to represent the end of Medievalism, brightens because the Renaissance is coming, darkens again with the disputes of the later Reformation, broadens placidly through the thirties as the rational eighteenth century, till at last, about forty-three, he gives a great yell and begins to burn the house down, as a symbol of the French Revolution. Such (we shall all agree) is the ordinary development of a boy.

“Now, seriously, does anyone believe a word of such bosh? Does anyone think that a child will repeat the periods of human history? Does anyone ever allow for a daughter in the Stone Age, or excuse a son because he is in the fourth century B.c. Yet the writer who lays down this splendid and staggering lie calmly says that ‘by the light of modern science and thought we are in a position to see that it is true.

“‘Seeing’ is a strong word to use of our conviction that icebergs are in the north, or that the earth goes round the sun. Yet anybody can use it of any casual or crazy biological fancy seen in some newspaper or suggested in some debating club. This is the rooted weakness of our time. Science, which means exactitude, has become the mother of all inexactitude.”

— Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

[note: paragraph breaks here are mine, since in the original text the whole thing was one giant paragraph that I found hard to read.]

Humanism, its Legacy

“No humanist is now remembered as a philosopher. They jeer and do not refute. The schoolman advanced, and supported, propositions about things: the humanist replied that his words were inelegant… Words like realitas and identificatio were condemned not because they had no use but because Cicero had not used them. The medieval philosophy is still read as philosophy, the history as history, the songs as songs: the hymns are still in use. The ‘barbarous’ books have survived in the only sense that really matters: they are used as their authors meant them to be used. It would be hard to think of one single text in humanists’ Latin, except the Utopia, of which we can say the same. Petrarch’s Latin poetry, Politian, Buchanan, even sweet Sannazarus, even Erasmus himself, are hardly ever opened except for an historical purpose. We read the humanists, in fact, only to learn about humanism; we read the ‘barbarous’ authors in order to be instructed or delighted about any theme they choose to handle.”

— C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

I don’t take a side on this issue. I have no particular feelings on humanism. I appreciate the sick burn.


Three quotes by Paul Valéry about poets, poems, and poetry:

“A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas.”

“To write regular verses destroys an infinite number of fine possibilities, but at the same time it suggests a multitude of distant and totally unexpected thoughts.”

“In poetry everything which must be said is almost impossible to say well.”

Usually, quotes like that (about poetry and what it means) are insufferable. In this specific case, they were quoted by Auden in A Certain World, which gives them a lot more credit.

Science Fiction, its Origins

“Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic… but by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted… I simply brought the fetish up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.”

— H.G. Wells

Wells claims that he had a notion to paint the old tropes of fantasy with a new, scientific veneer, without substantively changing them, and this sidestep is where science fiction emerged from fantasy. Not an auspicious birth. Feels about right, though; SF always seemed to be a flavor of fantasy.