Rio History: Self-Reflection

Special to the PRESS

One of the most amusing experiences I have ever had was when I watched my grandson, Luke first discover his own image in our wall mirror. Luke cooed and ahhed as his little fingers gently explored the face that peered back at him from the glass; a dawning realization of Self, a shared human experience that is older than the Great Pyramid itself.

Mirrors have been around for thousands of years. Before glass was invented mirrors were usually made of polished metal. The Greeks and Romans preferred mirrors of polished bronze.

Though any reflective surface, such as still water or polished marble, could hold the admirer’s gaze, glass mirrors were mentioned by Pliny on several occasions and by the seventh century AD, silver-backed-glass replaced precious metals as the best medium to view one’s own countenance.

During the middle Ages, Venetian artisans developed a process in which lead was applied to polished glass and then covered with mercury, forming an amalgam. After several days the mercury was drained, leaving a very flat and shiny surface under the glass. The back of the mirror was then varnished to protect it. The process was kept secret for almost a century but by the late 1700s mirrors were being manufactured on both sides of the English Channel.

Mirrors were extremely expensive, especially the larger variety whose frames were custom built of ebony, or tortoiseshell, inlaid with rare wood and precious metal or ivory.

True silvering, commonly used in mirrors today, was discovered by Justus von Liebig in 1835. Today, mirrors are made by sputtering a thin layer of molten aluminum or silver onto the back of a plate of glass in a vacuum. In order to eliminate faint reflections, the aluminum is evaporated onto the front surface of the glass rather than the back.

Mirrors come in many shapes and have many uses, but a flat surface is the simplest design.  These are used primarily in dressing rooms or hung in frames. But curved mirrors are entirely different in function. The ability to manufacture curved mirrors to very exact specifications has enabled scientists to build telescopes to plumb the depths of the sky, microscopes that can map a strand of DNA or powerful searchlights that can send a focused beam over great distances.

There have been many superstitions relating to mirrors.  One ancient myth was that the image in a mirror is our actual soul.  A broken mirror represented the soul being cast away from the body. To heal the severed soul, one must wait seven hours (one for each year of bad luck for breaking the mirror) before picking up the broken pieces, digging a hole and burying them under the light of the full moon.

I don’t believe much in superstitions.  But on the other hand, if I did, and were to take into account how many shards of glass I have buried in my lifetime I would probably have brought in an oil well or two by now.

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