“Everything That Man Makes Comes From Minerals” with Didier Nectoux

“Everything That Man Makes Comes From Minerals”  (2015)
in conversation with Didier Nectoux 

This text is part of “The Hypothetical Cabinet of Phlogistronics” publication
and it’s related to the homonymous exhibition.

Alan Bogana: I would like to begin by asking you to outline the history of the museum and its function.

Didier Nectoux: The history of the museum began in 1783 with the establishment of the École des Mines (MINES ParisTech today) under Louis XVI. Initially that focussed on the extraction of useful raw materials from minerals and mining engineering. This also entailed a collection of specimens, which grew very quickly, especially during the Revolution. Soon that collection took on the function of an inventory of the resources of France, its colonies and finally the whole of planet earth. On the one hand, this was about raw materials – France was at war and manufacturing weapons – but also simply about rationalisation in that preindustrial era. To this very day, the collection represents an essential inventory of the earth’s mineral resources. Today we have samples of 3,000 of the almost 4,800 known minerals. Every year, several dozen new minerals are discovered. Usually these are tiny samples, such as the wonderful tube-like tubulite, recently discovered in France and only several tenths of a millimetre in size. Using raster electronic microscopy we test whether the find is actually something new and then we catalogue the new mineral. This basic research is currently one of the functions of our museum. Then there is the application sector based on the collection. What is interesting these days, for example, are rare earths, which are indispensable for electronic components for computers, mobile telephones, photovoltaic cells, etc. Many of our samples were gathered long before those raw materials began to be in demand, and the sites where they were found have long since become overgrown. Instead of geologists boring holes at random in the jungle, we analyse samples from our collection and so can draw conclusions about possible deposits in the places where they were found. This is an example of how the analysis of several micrograms of minerals from our collection – not the most beautiful, but often of the greatest scientific interest – can be useful for industry.

AB: So basic research and applied science interact.

DN: Exactly. The standpoint of the geologist and of the mineralogist is this: Everything comes from minerals, rocks, the earth. This applies to all realms of science and technology, pharmacy, agriculture, air travel, electronics, and so on. When we speak of raw materials we are also speaking of exploiting the earth, of limited resources. Every human action has consequences. How can we live prudently without having too negative an influence on the environment? This is a controversial topic, and our museum deals with this as well. We are predestined to explain the connections between natural things, minerals and rocks, and artificially produced, fabricated things.

AB: I am very pleased to have been allowed to make 3D scans of some of the minerals in your collection, which I can now use for my artistic work. I have also provided you with copies, as the data could be useful for your purposes too. This aspect of the project is also of great interest to me. Where do you see potential?

DN: First, there is the aesthetic aspect: the scans are very, very beautiful. Then of course they can be useful from the viewpoint of science and communication. The colour is excluded, as are interfering shadows, which constitute parasitic visual information when we want to view the geometry. The crystalline forms are thus easier for lay-people in particular to understand, for example.

AB: So this reduction in information enables us to better recognise some aspects.

DN: Precisely. We almost have a hyper-reality. What is more, we can work with the files and enlarge and further isolate some elements. We can also rotate the objects and view them from all sides. That is not possible in display cases. There we have to select one side and one angle to light it from, although sometimes the back is not very interesting anyway. With the help of this new scan technique, very fragile or valuable samples can also be made accessible. And last but not least, when lending out specimens scans can be useful for our condition reports.

AB: How has taxonomy, classification, changed in the course of the two-hundred-year history of your museum?

DN: The classification system of mineralogy is the most recent among the natural sciences. This may seem surprising, after all, such systems always existed in mineralogy, a whole variety of them. In the 18th and 19th centuries each mineralogist drew up his own classification system. In France we had the system of René Just Haüy; in Germany that of Abraham Gottlob Werner was important. The taxonomies existed parallel, with criteria of their own which were hard to reconcile. It was the 20th century technologies that enabled precise analyses in the field of geometry and chemistry, namely, X-rays in the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction. And it was the 1940s before a new international classification standard was established – a veritable sea-change, which did not happen in other disciplines. Here in the museum we completely reconverted the collection in the 1950s and 1960s. Some details may still have to be discussed, but overall a consensus exists in mineralogy today.

AB: Where are discussions still in progress? Do you regard taxonomies as static or dynamic?

DN: The debates among the specialists concern the correct classification of new discoveries, for example, or else a new assessment of a well know type. People love classifying. There is a great debate in progress about quartz, in itself a simple mineral. Its classification is based on the chemical composition. Quartz is a silicon oxide and so the question that arises is whether it belongs to the class of oxides or silicates. The two parties are represented in the museum. I am one of those who see quartz as a silicate. So it can be slightly irritating when I want to talk about quartz as the king of the silicates in the museum, and 20 metres further on it can be found in the oxides section! A lay-person may well smile at something like that. Another on-going debate among the specialists is about the so-called organic minerals. Normally we do not speak of mineral chemistry, the official term is inorganic chemistry. But we speak of organic minerals as the tenth class of minerals. A scandal, a paradox! Fossil resins and natural hydrocarbons are classified for example as minerals and rocks. So could one not say that fossil oil is a mineral? Or water? I’d like to engage in wordplay with the term “mineral water”. That would be a fluid mineral, or what could it be? The debates are also about the limits of disciplines. Each one tries to mark these limits to his or her own advantage.

AB: Have you ever thought up a different, subjective, personal classification, for example, of minerals that you particularly like?

DN: That brings us to the area of the subjective and to perception. Do I like the mineral that shines most, or is the heaviest? I don’t think I could have a classification based on personal preference, on my preferences. I like that very much, passionately, madly? Is that what you mean? In fact I do love it madly! I could not classify minerals that way.

AB: There are various very active amateur cultures involved in the field of minerals. What do you think of these?

DN: The status of disciplines like mineralogy or palaeontology is not great in the world of science these days. We are a dying breed. Yet there is still a lot to be done and discovered. So the curious autodidacts are very welcome; there are so many more of them than there are scientists.
Often they are collectors. Today a lot of discoveries, even of new types, are made with the help of amateurs. I have already mentioned tubulite. Several samples discovered last year were found by amateurs. We would not have these new insights without the amateurs. So they are indispensable. Then there is the aspect of collecting. Collections are interesting when they serve the purpose of sharing knowledge, like in a museum. I find private people’s collections on private premises much less appealing. But that is a complicated issue and I’m simplifying here. But the enlightened amateur has a practical role to play in the world of science.
The world of lithotherapy, healing stones, is something totally different, and a bit problematic. There can be no doubt that minerals have an influence on living creatures. If you have digestion problems, you can take a clay, Smecta. If you have neuro-psychiatric problems you can take lithium. The same applies to calcium, fluoride, bismuth and many other minerals. The healing effect has been proven. Radioactivity and magnetism can have a negative or positive influence on organisms. But anyone who rubs an amethyst on his or her chest to stop a cough or to bring about the return of a lost lover, is entering the realm of faith. That is not a science, and it is not something I would discuss.

AB: Are there useful aspects nevertheless?

DN: People can die of imagined illnesses. I believe that under certain circumstances a psychological state that serves healing can be evoked through faith. I am saying that not as a museum curator but as a private person. If it does someone good to rub an amethyst on their chest, just as it does someone good to go to confession, that’s ok with me. I am neither a priest nor a lithotherapist, so I will not vouch for these thing. That belongs outside the museum.

AB: Could the notion of the cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer, be useful again today?

DN: That is a favourite topic of mine. In my view, our museum is a 21st century cabinet of curiosities. First of all, we are the direct heirs of the 18th century cabinets. Even today there is something of the potpourri about us which can be traced back to the cabinets of curiosities. Of course everything is ordered quite systematically, at first sight. But on a tour of the museum we suddenly come upon a display case about the Massif Central or with mineral curiosities that have flamboyant shapes. Then we find a metal display case where we show our most beautiful acquisitions, etc. So there are a number of exceptions to the lovely scientific rule. But these exceptions are there to tell people about the beauty of the world, about history, geography, technology, the natural sciences, the environment. The objects in our collection can evoke the whole world. They show the perception of the world, the visions, the explanations that are possible today, but also the uncertainties of the future. That is precisely the cabinet of curiosities! But there are two essential differences to the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, the possibilities seemed unlimited. Everything was still to be discovered, and each discovery brought others in its wake. It seemed like the beginning of a quasi-infinite development. Things are different today, at least as regards the resources. We may be discussing exploiting resources under the sea and on other planets in the solar system, but the scope has surely become narrower. What is more, today we are aware of the negative impacts on the environment. These problems are addressed in our 21st century cabinet of curiosities.

AB: Some minerals remind me of landscapes or buildings. Do you also find that?

DN: Yes, there are lime stones that look like ruins, or like miniatures created in the 18th or 19th century. We have sandstones and sepiolites that are reminiscent of sculptures. What is at work here is personal imagination stimulated and often heightened by the lighting. For example, if you visit caves and view the stalactites, it seems that every cave has a Virgin and Child or Three Wise Kings. That is the poetry of nature. Then there are very geometrical shapes, like the pyrite, which remind us of human constructions. Sometimes it is hard to convince people that no human hand was at work cutting the right angles. I think it is fascinating how the borderline between natural and artificial are blurred here.

AB: In this context, I am particularly fascinated by crystal twinning.

DN: Indeed, there we have perfect symmetries with extremely complex forms which would be very difficult for a sculptor to achieve. What interests me is the border between human intervention and nature. We realise that these forms were produced by nature’s fantasy, without our knowledge. And they are beautiful! This involves us in philosophical concepts about the human spirit and the beauty of nature.

AB: Which minerals do you regard as exotic and mysterious?

DN: Are we also talking about meteorites? They tell us about the history of the solar system. A lot is still a mystery. There is much still to be discovered and understood through these multi-billion-year-old witnesses. Many minerals have little pockets of fluids and it is highly intriguing how specialists are able to draw conclusions about the genesis of the earth, the solar system, the universe, on the basis of their analysis. The infinitely small tells us so much about the infinitely large, about space and time. Thanks to minerals we are able to undertake veritable journeys through time and space.

AB: What role could art play in connection with mineralogy?

DN: Everything that man makes comes from the world of minerals. Sometimes this makes a diversion through the world of plants, which also relies on mineral resources, just like the animal world. Everything comes from the mineral! This also applies to the arts. As soon as we implement an idea we are in the field of the material. Paints, pigments, the stone for sculpture, the subject, everything amounts to planet earth. Even the materials for making a piano are based on minerals. In electronic music we need a mixer console, for example, in which 40 to 50 different minerals are included. I see all this with the eye of the geologist, of course, but for me it is a collection of minerals in the service of an artistic act.

Dr. Didier Nectoux is a mineralogist and curator at the Musée de Minéralogie MINES ParisTech.