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Sex, art, science and glass

Reflecting on a common item in 'Mirror Mirror'

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Reflecting on a common item in 'Mirror Mirror'

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Mirror, mirror, on the wall, how didst thou come to be at all?

From showing us ourselves up close to showing us the remote reaches of outer space, the mirror has enhanced human ways of seeing for millennia. Now Mark Pendergrast (author of "Uncommon Grounds," a highly informative history of coffee) charts the course of its development and usage across time, space, and cultural divides.

"Mirror Mirror" (Basic Books) reflects on mirrors from two angles, using both technological and cultural analysis -- and shows how the item, once closely associated with magic and spiritualism, became key to science and exploration.

"I would say that all the themes of the book are there from the beginning, including the individual, the social, magic, religion, and also science," Pendergrast said in an interview. "The idea of vanity, of individuals checking themselves, that was certainly true from the very beginning. ... At the same time, the Egyptians used mirrors to peer inside the pyramids, to bring light down there.

"I would say," he added, "that what really happened was when mirrors were very costly and rare and rather small, we tended to use them more for mystical and religious purposes."

Looking at ourselves (even if you're a dolphin)

Not exclusively, however. Pendergrast also notes an enduring connection between mirrors and sex. The all-too-human penchant for sexual carousing in front of mirrors goes back a long way.

"This fellow Hostius Quadra, [a Roman living] around the time of Jesus, had these big metal concave mirrors," observed Pendergrast. "He had orgies in front of them in order to see everything looking bigger, so to speak."

Archimedes
The Greek scientist Archimedes allegedly used mirrors to set fire to Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse.

Not even other species are immune to the mirror's attraction. "They're now thinking that dolphins, as well as humans and higher apes, can recognize themselves in mirrors," Pendergrast said. "One of the ways they figured this out was that dolphins like to have sex in front of mirrors. When they drift out of [eyesight] they stop the action and move back in front of the mirror."

Mirrors were also thought to provide a window into another time. The objects, as well as reflective surfaces in general, are used in "scrying," a form of mirror-assisted divination.

While Pendergrast said that "human beings will usually see what they expect to see, particularly when they stare at something for a long time," the practice was remarkably widespread among cultures.

"It seems to have developed independently in the Western hemisphere as well as in the old world," he said. "The Aztecs used obsidian mirrors for scrying, and the Chinese did scrying independently of the Europeans."

The science in art

Scrying may not have proved worthwhile to fortune telling, but in the Renaissance, the practice did give rise to the science of optics -- which changed the image and self-perception of Western civilization.

Lady from Shanghai
Mirrors have played a key role in movies -- particularly in funhouse scenes such as that in "The Lady from Shanghai," with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Indeed, some of the book's most fascinating offerings lie in the mirror's influence upon the world of art, which became a force multiplier in terms of magnifying the mirror's effect.

"In terms of the art world, there's no question that at the beginning of the 15th century, something quite remarkable happened, where they began to paint exquisitely detailed pictures in three dimensions," Pendergrast said. "In fact, van Eyck's most famous picture, the Arnolfini Portrait, has a convex mirror right smack in the middle of it. It's my theory that van Eyck was slyly telling us how he painted the picture, that he used a convex mirror as an aid."

It wasn't only painters who were using mirrors to greater effect. In Germany, a metalworker named Johann Gutenberg adapted the reversed-image effect from the mirrors he sold to religious pilgrims to create the printing press.

Nor were painters the only ones who saw the mirror as a symbol. "[Shakespeare's] works are filled with references to mirrors, not only for vanity but for use in self-examination," said Pendergrast. "In fact, there's a famous scene in 'Richard II,' when he's losing his kingship, he calls for a mirror, looks into it and asks, 'Why don't I look any different?' Then he smashes it on the stage and says, 'That's my old identity.' "

The 17th century saw the turning of the mirror away from the self and towards the heavens. The principles laid down by pioneers such as Galileo and Newton endures to this day in space exploration apparatuses with names like Arecibo, the Very Large Array, and Hubble.

Pendergrast sees their influence as continuing, in ways ancient users of mirrors could not have foreseen.

Pendergrast
Author Mark Pendergrast

"I think the most important way will be through the speed of fiber optics and computers," he said. "Fiber optics uses mirrors [but] it's very slow now."

The solution, he believes, could come in a new discipline called "photonics." Mother Nature already uses similar principles in creating rainbows.

"The reason the lights shimmers and changes in iridescence is that tiny holes that are exactly the wavelength of light being reflected," said Pendergrast. Mechanically, he added, "right now the size of chips is as small as it can be using lenses. The trouble is, as you go to higher wavelengths, the glass absorbs the light. The solution is to use mirrors, which will reflect most wavelengths until you get up into x-rays."

The result? Pendergrast doesn't have a crystal ball, but he foresees an incredible boost in computer power.

"You could potentially use mirrors to make a huge leap in computer technology, and they've been working on that in places like the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, funded by places like Intel and the big computer makers," Pendergrast said. "I think in the next few years, it's going to break."


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