The Young Inelastic Lunar Caustic Tunnelling
Silver: the photographic process begins with the reduction of a single silver ion at the tip of a grain of emulsion, like an abandoned Goldring stylus at the very top of Ben Nevis. A headlong cascade of alchemy creates a picture, taking seconds to produce five hours of a draughtsman’s eager hand.
Nitrate: NO3, as opposed to Nitrite, which is NO2: the first of these is an oxidising agent, while the second is used as an additive for paints to inhibit the oxidation process. I once worked at a firm which had mistakenly ordered sodium nitrate and was using this in the formulation for water-based primer. When I mentioned that this was the incorrect material, they told me it was close enough to be the real thing and not to worry.
Dear Doctor Perril, I find myself confused. Another me has come to watch the audience relax – they’re not alert, but not quite bored, as meanwhile the facts refuse to reconcile themselves. Nitrate; you understand more than most, how a deadly ribbon of fragile plastic holds the ghost of an elegant smile. She died, forgotten, fifteen years ago but now we all watch and admire the unconscious charm. Silver nitrate; it’s pure you know, dissolves to give a spirit clear, seething with latent drama. But how can one bottle of this stuff be harmless while the other threatens to corrode? They are identical…they are the same, a single CAS-number and a common name, I find myself becoming cynical at the idea that danger lies in the eye of the beholder.
Strange, then to recall that she died but still we are bewitched; her face upon the screen reminds us of a long-lost world, where a dress might emerge from a pristine cardboard box. Inside the box, among the tissued realms, an enigmatic note will say…but we don’t need to know. Her face displays a soft-lit world of expectation; the audience leans forward, the edges of red velvet seats accommodate its elegant anxiety. Silver nitrate struggles to contain this world of lost adventures; it’s there for all to see, in black and white and mono sound; no need for colour to enhance the sweep of drama where we drowned on Friday nights.
Commentary: Silver Nitrate is used to determine the salt content of solutions in titrations. The silver chloride forms a soft white precipitate, but when the chloride ions are exhausted the silver reacts with chromate ions to give a brilliant red colour. Silver halides were used to create images on photographic emulsion films by selectively reacting to light. Simon Perril is a writer and lecturer whose book ‘Nitrate’ discusses the early years of cinema when films were made from cellulose nitrate, an extremely flammable polymer.
Perril now teaches at De Montfort University, the institute formerly known as Leicester Poly; back in 1986 I was a chemistry student at LP and remember trying to carry out nitration of an aromatic compound – with mixed results…
The old name for silver nitrate is ‘lunar caustic’ – an acknowledgment that the material is indeed corrosive. The English writer Malcolm Lowry, famous only for his novel Under the Volcano, produced a fragmentary novella Lunar Caustic describing his experiences in a mental asylum in New York. Modern readers have described this work as a frenzy of scrambled ideas and metaphors. We need to strike a balance between Lowry’s reckless debauchery and the agonised primness of H P Lovecraft, between rough saloon and academic library. Each alone is not enough – we must divide our time as did the almighty with light and shade, Larkin’s imaginary gin that sparkles in a never-ending afternoon.
Commentary: silver nitrate is available from a number of suppliers. We located an agent who could provide the identical standard solution at a slightly lower price, but when the bottle arrived we found that it was labelled ‘corrosive’, whereas the previous bottle carried no hazard warnings at all. So we had to compile and issue a new version of the Risk Assessment sheet, a task which took several man-hours and negated the cost-saving of the original purchase.
And the novella Lunar Caustic is dismissed by some as being shallow and uninspired; I think of it as being like a slightly more elegant Hunter S Thompson.