At first glance, the word mineral invokes an image associated with mining, heavy machinery and digging for natural resources beneath the Earth’s surface. This evokes images associated with dark mines, muddy fields, and sweaty miners all digging for minerals to power our modern world. Minerals are also collected and displayed worldwide for their beauty. Using science as a base and an artist’s eye, we can learn to appreciate minerals for their natural beauty as well as for their chemistry.
The industrial uses of minerals are easy to see. Minerals shape and fuel the world around us from the phone in your hand to the satellites circling the globe. The scientists who study minerals are called mineralogists and the study of minerals is known as mineralogy. Mineralogy is a natural science and a branch of geology filled with dazzling crystals, fascinating physics, and captivating chemistry.
Since minerals are by definition, an inorganic (not from living things), naturally occurring solid with a defined chemical composition and crystal structure, mineralogist are educated in many fields of study, areas that include natural sciences, chemistry and physics. Understanding even a little about mineralogy allows us to move away from the conventional image of dark industrial mining to a world where we can begin appreciating mineral’s natural beauty, their forms, their colors and contours.
So how does understanding minerals’ chemical composition and crystal structure help us appreciate their beauty? Let’s dig into what makes a mineral naturally beautiful. First, let us understand what it means to have natural beauty. Natural beauty of a minerals refers to the fact minerals that are shown at the Perot Museum are only collected and cleaned, they are not cut or polished; they are purely removed from the earth and displayed in their nature form. Natural beauty also refers to how prefect the crystal structure is. The less defects the better! But what does it mean to have a perfect crystal structure and more importantly, what is it?
Crystal structures form as mineral atoms solidifies into one of the seven crystal shapes (triclinic, monoclinic, orthorhombic, tetragonal, trigonal, hexagonal and cubic). When a mineral is removed from the earth, a perfect crystal means not having any breaks. Crystals form when there is a combination of certain chemical elements in the form of mineral rich hydrothermal fluids. These fluids flood into spaces within rocks and with changing of pressure and the cooling of temperatures crystals begin to grow.
To illustrate, imagine water in an ice tray. The spaces within the tray represents the pockets in rocks and the water represents the hydrothermal fluids. Pop the water filed tray into the freezer and wait as the water temperature begins to fall, the water molecules commence solidifying and crystalizing. The more perfect the conditions that help form the ice cube the more chances a perfect crystal structure will form. Just as a mineral forming beneath the earth’s surface needs everything to be just right!
If we continue using ice as an example, we can conclude something rather interesting. By using the definition of a mineral, we see that ice is an inorganic, naturally occurring solid with a definable chemical composition (H2O) with a hexagonal crystal structure. This means, ice is indeed classified as a mineral.
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Using our newfound knowledge on what makes a mineral naturally beautiful, let us take a quick dig on how the tradition of mineral collecting began.
The tradition of collecting minerals in Europe and the United states is a well-established practice. Tracing its history is a fascinating adventure. It’s a pathway that historically leads to museums displaying what were termed “cabinets of curiosities” for the public. Mineral collecting began with a book, written exclusively on mining and mineralogy published in Germany in 1556 On the Nature of Metals by Georgius Agricola, considered by many as the “Father of Mineralogy.” Over the years collections in Europe and the United states matured while in other countries the tradition for collecting minerals was at a minimum.
During the last 40 years, China has become one of the most exciting countries for mineral collectors. China has an extraordinary tradition of collecting stones. Once a country that only used minerals for industrial consumption has had a mineral revolution. Minerals found in China are now being collected for their aestheticism rather than only for industrial uses. Embracing new traditions and appreciation of natural art explained through science, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is now exhibiting Nature’s Art - The Mineral Beauty of China through September 7th featuring minerals exclusively from China. At the Museum, you will learn how important minerals are scientifically, industrially and as a natural artistic and aesthetic collectable. You will also learn how to appreciate the physics, chemistry, and geology that combine naturally to form stunning minerals.
Visiting the exhibit (which is presented in English, Spanish, and Mandarin), you have a chance to view naturally beautiful, stunning minerals and see them for more than their industrial uses. Learning how different minerals form will lead to their appreciation. Combining science and an artist’s eye will lead you to see minerals true naturally-occurring marvels, or nature’s art.