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The Dayside : How not to teach kids about crystals

By: Charles Day
31 January 2014

Chapter 28 of the Book of Exodus includes God's instructions for the construction of a sleeveless garment, an ephod, that incorporates a bejewelled breastplate. The ephod is intended for Aaron to wear in his role as the first hereditary high priest of the Israelites. Here's how the breastplate is described in the King James Version (KJV):

And thou shalt make the breastplate of judgment with cunning work; after the work of the ephod thou shalt make it; of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen, shalt thou make it.
Foursquare it shall be being doubled; a span shall be the length thereof, and a span shall be the breadth thereof.
And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle: this shall be the first row.
And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond.
And the third row a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst.
And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosings.
And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet; every one with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes.

The gems specified in the original Hebrew text have not been definitively identified. As far as I can tell, the translations in the KJV originate from Antiquities of the Jews, a book written around AD 94 by Titus Flavius Josephus.

Born in Jerusalem in AD 37, Josephus initially fought against the Roman occupation of his homeland. In a turn of events that involved a shrewd prophecy and a hint of treachery, Josephus acquired Roman citizenship and the patronage of two Roman emperors, Vespasian and Titus. The goal of Antiquities of the Jews was to interpret Jewish history for a Greek and Roman audience.

Later—possibly in the 16th or 17th centuries; sources disagree—the 12 gems of Aaron's breastplate became the 12 birthstones, one for each month of the year. Sardius (carnelian)—which represents the tribe founded by Jacob and Leah's first-born son, Reuben—became the birthstone of people born in the first month of the year. Topaz, the tribe of Simeon's stone, became February's birthstone, and so on. The modern lineup dates from 1912, when jewelers made adjustments—presumably to boost profits.

Polished, uncut stones of carnelian.

Polished, uncut stones of carnelian.

Carnelian is a silica material whose admixture of iron impurities engenders a red-brown hue that ranges in tone from orange to dark brown. Unlike quartz, which is also a silica material, carnelian is not crystalline. Rather, like agate, onyx, and other members of the chalcedony family, carnelian is a composite of microcrystals made of quartz and its structural relative moganite. Carnelian gemstones are not translucent, but opaque and silky.

What your birthstone says about you

Why am I telling you all this? Because last week I found out that the cover story of the February 2014 issue of National Geographic Kids purports to predict one's personality based on one's birth month. "Gems—what your birthstone says about you" is the title.

From the article, readers whose birthday falls, say, in February would learn that their birthstone is amethyst. Those readers would also learn that amethyst represents sincerity. "Being two-faced or half-hearted isn't your thing. What you say to your friends and family is genuine and honest," the writeup asserts. And if February-born readers are fans of the British boy band One Direction, they would be delighted to learn that amethyst is also the birthstone of band member Harry Styles.

Granted, the writeup on amethyst also includes facts about the gem's origin and historical use. Granted, invoking the widely popular Styles is a shrewd way to engage young readers. Still, the flippantly nonscientific tone of the article and the priority given in each writeup to astrologically ordained character traits constitute a disappointment, to say the least. As I hoped to demonstrate in my preamble, the history and nature of birthstones is rich and interesting. It should be possible to engage young readers in the topic of gemstones and crystals without invoking astrology.

Lest you think that I'm being too harsh, consider how National Geographic describes itself in its media kit:

As part of the world's largest non-profit scientific, education, and entertainment organizations, National Geographic has unmatched reach to a national audience that influences opinions on the Beltway, in the board room, in Silicon Valley, and beyond.

And lest you should think I'm being too alarmist, consider this: When I used Google to look for images of carnelian, many of the hits were for sites that touted the gemstone's healing qualities. It would be a shame if National Geographic Kids helped to spread quackery and pseudoscience.

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