Kage Baker had a fondness for hands-on science. She was a woman of her hands, herself; fond and fussy of her tools, always more inclined to make something about which she wanted to learn, rather than just read about it.
Her eventual devotion to historical recreation rose from attempts that began waaay back in childhood: to make the stuff she learned about in books. We both felt that irresistable urge to make it real – I now believe that it’s a childhood symptom of someone who’s going to end up as an historian, or a paleontologist. Or someone who makes rush lights out of scallop shells, dryer lint and Crisco; or hammers armour pieces out of the skins of deceased cars.
Kage and I were, and knew, all those sorts of folks. Part of the immense gravitational pull of the Renaissance Faire was finding other people who knew how to use flint and steel, or had solved the problem of lumps in the brose. People who knew that the hardest parts of historical clothing were finding shoes and spectacle frames. Folks who knew what the Latin parts of Boccassio’s Decameron really said …
And of course, she gave all those skills – and many others she only experimented with at home – to her cyborg Immortals. If you’re actually walking through history, as they had to, you learn all the things that ordinary people do: it’s the necessity of survival. The spectrum of how to eat grain – to essentially turn birdseed into bread and beer: that alone is a foundation stone of human life. Just what can you cook over an open fire? With some small aides like a grill, a flat rock, and a spit-boy … there are no limits.
We made paper out of papyrus, bark, corn husks and – the ultimate technology! – actual rags. (Pro tip: Ask your mother before you rip up your cotton nighties.) Making paper takes a lot more percussion than you’d think, and your mother will not appreciate what you do to the window screens. Kage had a passion for making ink; she started more than one kitchen fire baking oak galls and walnut shells, and she poisoned herself with nutmeg, iris roots and monkshood flowers. But we also discovered a great chestnut brown dye by mashing up calla lilies, and it didn’t even need a mordant to be completely impossible to get out of cloth!
Kage’s fascination with How To Really Do It never faded. She was collecting recipes and instruction right to end, and I’ve kept on at it too. I’m less of a hands-on experimenter, to my shame; but I do read voraciously, and so I still have loads of opportunities to file away ideas. You never know when society will collapse around you, or you’ll have a boring Saturday to fill … anyway, I thought I’d share a few of the odder ones in the recent files, things I haven’t had a chance or need to try yet.
Do you fancy graphene, Dear Readers? It’s one of the newest of new potions, and is used to make all sorts of light, strong, flexible parts: or will be soon. Now’s the time to play with it, as great things are expected of it. One of its more interesting uses is as an aerogel: foam so light it won’t bend a blade of grass. And you can make it on the kitchen counter!
New Paper Explains How To Make Supermaterial Graphene In A Blender. To wit, per Nature News: Place 0.5 l water, 10-25 ml detergent, 20-50 g graphite in 400W blender, and run 10-30 min. Nature paper: Scalable production of large quantities of defect-free few-layer graphene by shear exfoliation in liquids.
Then there are games you can play with dyslexia. Kage was dyslexic; so am I. And yet, we both were/are good at pattern recognition, puzzle solving and seeing through optical illusions. Kage was fascinated by optical illusion games, as she could tune her vision in and out of the illusion like fine-tuning a radio through the static between stations. To a lesser extent, so can I – and I must say, there’s an actual physical pleasure in the substance of the eyes that comes from seeing through the distortions: especially in those Magic Eye things.
We were both also fond of the work of Escher. Kage loved those stairs that worked in every direction, regardless of gravity! And this article sort of explains why:
If you try some of the things it suggests, you may find a new and interesting past time. And then the CIA or the NSA or Dr. Zeus might find a use for your special pattern-busting talents …
One never knows what will be useful, you know? That’s what makes knowledge, power. Especially if you take the time to find out how something really works.
Or so Kage always felt.