Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Doggerel #108: "Artificial"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One thing woos commonly like to do is draw a line between "natural" and "artificial," as if that meant something. When it comes down to things like chemicals, the origin doesn't matter: A thing is a thing, no matter where it came from.

Sometimes, there is, however, a reason to make the distinction. For example, a natural herb versus a pharmaceutical equivalent: Herbs vary wildly, and sometimes don't even contain the sought-after active ingredient. In other cases, the unnecessary bits of the herb may even be harmful. In such a case, the artificial pharmaceutical is superior: We know what we want, and can produce it without having to create all the messy things involved in growing a plant.

The problem with this doggerel isn't with such cases: There's a quantifiable difference between the "natural" and "artificial" forms. The problem arises when two effectively identical things are treated differently based on their origin, rather than their actual differences. The fact that something is made by human beings doesn't matter to the laws of physics, no matter how big our egos (or, sometimes in the case of technophobes, anti-egos) are. If there's something wrong with an artificial version of a product, it's a flaw in human efforts to replicate what unguided nature does. If unguided nature can do it, chances are, being a part of the same natural universe, so can we.


Infophile said...

I see this same thing going on with gems. We have the ability to perfectly replicate many types of gems, and yet the "artificial" versions are shunned and sell for much less because they aren't "real." People even go so far as to demand tracking data and certification to prove that gems came from mines instead of a laboratory, when there's zero chemical difference between the two.

Don said...

What that might mean, though, is that when us science-savvy, no-BS folk go to get engaged, we can get a hell of a price on a massive rock produced in a lab instead of mined by slave labor in a giant, dangerous hole somewhere under Africa. I see good all around.

Bronze Dog said...

Absolutely agreed. Remember one of the skepchicks endorsing getting non-diamond gems for wedding rings and such: Has a chance for originality, and they can be gotten through ethical companies.

Berlzebub said...

[sarcasm]Of course, "natural" is always better. You know those people who shun artificial gems also ride horses into work, since they're natural and a car isn't.[/sarcasm]

I've heard that quite a bit of the time, the "synthetic" gems are actually of better quality with fewer impurities. It'd be interesting to hear from a real jeweler about the specifics. If they can tell a difference between real vs. manufactured, which has better clarity and reflective properties, etc.

Rev. BigDumbChimp said...

Thankfully my wife specifically told me she doesn't like diamonds (or most jewelry for that matter).

I would think with all the press about "Blood Diamonds" that the lab versions would be gaining chic with the Hollywood crowd, which in turn of course would mean spreading to all the people who are obsessed with anything hollywood.

Anonymous said...

I'll take an "artificial" sapphire over a "real" one any day. The lab grown ones are chemically identical, less expensive, don't require exploitation to get, and are less likely to have flaws. Lab grown gemstones FTW!

Infophile said...

I've heard that quite a bit of the time, the "synthetic" gems are actually of better quality with fewer impurities. It'd be interesting to hear from a real jeweler about the specifics. If they can tell a difference between real vs. manufactured, which has better clarity and reflective properties, etc.

Well, I'm not a real jeweler, but as my nom de blog suggests, I tend to pick up a ton of information, so I'll add what I can:

(Expanding a bit on what Tara said) The first big thing in artificial gems was with Sapphires. Originally, they were created in labs perfectly, without any flaws in them. However, flawless sapphires were ridiculously rare in nature, so the flaws actually became evidence of being "natural." Once the guy who designed the procedure to grow them realized this, he then figured out a way to artificially give them flaws, making it impossible to tell them apart from natural ones (they're essentially the same). This led to the idiocy I described above.

The other gem that it's very popular to imitate is the diamond. However, in this case, "artificial" diamonds aren't really diamonds, but other gems that resemble them greatly (so there is a significant difference here). You've surely heard of Cubic Zirconia, which actually isn't quite as pretty as a diamond in general.

However, there's a significantly better substitute: Moissanite. To all but the most trained jewelers (and chemists), Moissanite is next to identical to diamond (though very different chemically). The only significant difference is its index of refraction, which is slight higher than that of diamonds. However, diamond's high index of refraction is what makes it sparkle and gives it a lot of its appeal. Since Moissanite has an even higher index of refraction, this actually ends up making it look better than diamond.

To sum it up: Moissanite is cheaper than diamond, prettier than diamond, and doesn't come with moral baggage.

Bronze Dog said...

IIRC, one test that's been devised to tell the difference is a density test: They've got a solution of some kind that moissanite will sink in that diamond won't.

Feels kind of funny: I know of woos who complain about the "fact" that Knowing ruins things, and yet, I have a distinct feeling they're the sort who will insist on these tests despite synthetic gems being as good or better, depending on your aesthetics, being generally better for your wallet.

Currently wikiing a lot of this stuff and went from diamonds to carbon nanotubes. Trippy-keen stuff there.

Berlzebub said...

There are "artificial" diamonds, but they're mostly used in industrial tools. IIRC, it's only slightly cheaper to make them than mine them, but you get more consistant quality.

They have to take carbon, like graphite or coal, and compress it under quite a bit of heat. Usually, they only do it to make a dust of diamond. However, if they were to actually work at refining the method, and making bigger rocks, I'm sure the price would come down.

Anyway, I've heard of Moissanite. It's a silicone carbonite, IIRC. The most interesting thing I heard about it is that it can withstand higher temperatures than diamond. Since diamonds are carbon, they get up to about 800 degrees, and suddenly go up in a puff of flame.

If I hadn't paid so much for my wife's ring, that would be a very cool experiment!

King Aardvark said...

infophile, you're my hero. Everyone should have access to an infophile.

That said, you're making me procrastinate from my work. Screw you, infophile ;-)

Infophile said...

Procrastinating at work was the very reason I started blogging.

Rhoadan said...

First of all, as someone who used to sell jewelry, I should point out that in that case you have three categories: natural, which came out of the ground; synthetic, or lab grown, also called "created"; and "simulated", "faux," or artificial which ain't the same stone at all, but looks like it.

Hmmm. Poking around the web turns up a fourth category that I'm very familiar with but hadn't slotted out separately:"Genuine." This is a stone that came out of the ground and then was "enhanced" in some fashion e.g. irradiating a clear topaz to turn it blue, or forcing oil into an emerald to hide the flaws/improve the color.

Anyway, I was poking around the web because I had a vague recollection of synthetic corundum showing a layering effect from the manufacturing process that you don't see in natural ones, and I don't have my reference book handy. This layering effect, if it exists, is only visible on microscopic examination and wouldn't be evident to a casual observer.

I suspect, frankly, that the cachet of natural stone relates directly to their rarity, except possibly in the case of diamonds where the rarity is at least partially induced by the cartels, and the hardness and sparkle are part of the appeal.

Personally, I have no problem with buying/owning synthetic stones, but I do want to know their provenance if for no other reason than I don't want to get ripped off by paying a natural stone price for a synthetic.

Oh and Berlzebub, I've heard that diamond synthesis techniques have improved the point of worrying the cartels. The new methods, starting with diamond film deposition, don't require the pressure although they may still require significant heat.

Anonymous said...

I've recently read an article (well not THAT recently, like in the past year) of Popular Science (no such thing man...) discussing new methods of making artificial diamonds of jeweler quality, and that they would be far cheaper and lack any of the diamond wars, and also chemically identical. They could even add some flaws if needed, and reach sizes in excess of what you'd ever find in nature.

I too have never understood this pointless dividing line. People say artificial like it's a dirty word, but it has the word "art" right in it! It's right up there with "synthetic".

I think it's two things. In the case of gems and things like fake leather, it must be some emotional element. There's just value in it coming "from nature" (where do you think LABS get the things they use to make this stuff?). The other thing is just this whole general hatred of scientists. Those guys are just evil and flawed humans and can't ever replicate what the grandness and perfection of nature can produce. Right, Gaia the spirit of the Earth exists and everything in nature is perfect. Let's strand you on some island full of venemous snakes and see how long you maintain this view of nature. IT's just a bunch of stuff that happens, and while I love it, I have the sense to recognize that the emotional awe of it is all in my head and is not an inherent aspect of the universe like it's some living thing giving me the power of Freedan and Shadow to destroy the comet of evil foreign-ness.

If you'll excuse me, I'll just be hangin' with Mewtwo. He gets it!

Anonymous said...

I think it's two things. In the case of gems and things like fake leather, it must be some emotional element.

I'd have to disagree with fake leather being just as good as the real thing, well until we grow it in cloning vats anyway.

We can make stuff that imitates one or two aspects of leather; look, feel, durability or porosity but you won't get all of them in one product. Add in the fact that hides are a waste product of the meat industry and I'd have to have a very good reason to pick fake leather over the real stuff

Anonymous said...

We can make stuff that imitates one or two aspects of leather; look, feel, durability or porosity but you won't get all of them in one product.

Synthetic leathers never smell or taste right.

Plus real leather is a sustainable, renewable, compostable product (or at least it can be, depending on the tanning process), unlike the oil-based alternatives.

JackalMage said...

Anonymous, I love you just for the Freedan and Shadow comment. Illusion of Gaia was one of the best RPGs produced for the playstation, but was criminally underexposed.

Fun fact: It actually took me about 7 years to beat the game. Twice I got absolutely stuck on one point (taking over a week of daily play before I gave up) and then picked it up again a few years later and got through the area without any problems. Both times I wrote up as my past self being retarded. Take that, past self! Let's see you retaliate!

Bronze Dog said...

They had a PS version? I only played on the SNES.

Don said...

I was thinking the same thing myself. Far as I know, there was no PSX version of the game. It wasn't even a late SNES game; it came out about the middle of the system's lifetime.

Wikipedia bears us out, BD. SNES only.

JackalMage said...

I, um, have no idea why I typed playstation. I meant SNES.