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December 12, 2006

Earlier this semester I made some snide comments about my professor for “Physics for Future Presidents” about his subpar math skills. I don’t know if I would necessarily like to retract these statements–that would just be backing down after all (or worse, flip-flopping) and in America we don’t do that. But I will say that, petty complaints aside, Professor Muller is one of the most awesome teachers I’ve ever had. If you ever get the chance to take Physics for Future Presidents, it’s a good idea. But actually, you don’t even really have to take it. The textbook’s online: http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/PffP.html. I highly recommend reading parts of it even if you never intend to take the class and even if you don’t like phyiscs very much. This is probably my favorite class that I’m taking this semester. Just to give an example of the kind of material that’s covered, I’m giving you one of my favorite excerpts from the book. It’s from the chapter on light. Check it out.

“Cubic zirconia, called CZ for short, is a man-made crystal that is much cheaper than diamond, but has even more fire. It is often sold under the name of “counterfeit diamond.” Look it up on the Internet. Whereas the dispersion (fire) for diamond is 0.040, the dispersion for CZ is in the range of 0.060 to 0.066. Because of this high dispersion, in sunlight CZ glitters with significantly more color than does diamond. Since it is primarily such fire that made diamonds so desirable, then CZ is more beautiful than diamond, at least according to the traditional evaluation.

“It is also much, much cheaper. Gem quality diamonds cost about $30,000 per gram, or about $6,000 per carat. One carat of CZ costs about $20. (See, for example, http://e14k.com/czinfo.htm.) Wow! Greater beauty at 1/300 the cost! Different processes produce CZ with different dispersions. Which value of dispersion would you guess is the most valued? The one with the most fire, the most beauty, i.e. 0.066?

“Nope. Most people prefer the lower value. Why? Can you guess?

“Here is the fascinating answer: people prefer the smaller dispersion, and its lesser fire, because it looks more like a “genuine” diamond! Many people don’t like CZ that sparkles too much, because then everyone knows it isn’t diamond. The irony is that the diamond was initially admired because it had more dispersion than any other gemstone. It was also very expensive. Now we have something that is prettier, but inexpensive, so many people don’t want it. How can you show people that you love them by giving them something beautiful but cheap? Diamonds are admired because they are expensive, and they are expensive because they are admired. Put another way, diamond is expensive because it costs so much. Some day I predict the price of diamonds will plummet because their value has no real basis.[7]

“So, when you get engaged, save money by getting the prettier stone and save a fortune. Laugh at all those who waste money enriching the de Beers diamond cartel, and send me a card telling me that you took my advice!”

Although this course is called Physics for Future Presidents, politics is rarely involved in anything Muller says; he does an excellent job of remaining nonpartisan. The focus is on the physics. So when Muller has a blatant opinion in the textbook, it’s usually because it’s not really an opinion at all, but a logical conclusion based on scientific fact. There is no reason you can come up with to buy your fiancee diamonds. None.

I confronted some of my female floormates with this, but of course they thought it was ridiculous to reduce this to physics. They said it’s more than just a decoration. Their arguments consisted entirely of “It’s kind of a symbol of how much your wife is worth to you” and “Fine, good luck finding a girl who doesn’t want a diamond” and “Diamonds are also the hardest known material” (which is in fact a valid argument if you actually find that feature to be romantic, as Muller pointed out in the footnote) and my personal favorite, coming from someone who is actually taking the class with me and therefore knows exactly what I’m talking about, “That all makes sense, but it’s just tradition–diamonds have always been what you give your fiancee.” Ooh, don’t even get me started on tradition. Tradition. Like the traditional role of the woman as housekeeper, you mean. Throughout history, traditions have been abandoned when the foundations on which they were based were subsequently found to be invalid. Know what that’s called? That’s right, progress.

I’m not even going to bother with the other arguments I listed. If you’ve got anything better, I would absolutely love to hear it. Because even though I hold Muller’s opinion in fairly high regard, I find it very difficult to take his advice. To laugh at those who waste thousands of dollars, that is. Maybe I’m just too cynical.

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7 Comments
  1. http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/PffP.html … Copyright infringement!!!! Copyright infringement!!!I’d like to clarify something: Diamonds were not expensive because they were shiny. Or at least not mostly – there are tons of shiny substances. That’s not where real value comes from: obsidian, for instance, is rather shiny.The point is it’s shiny AND rare. It would never have been valuable if you could find it in barnyard feces. Gold has a similar atribute (rarity) except it does one better; it’s also valuable because it was so malleable (that is, could be used so creatively to decorate). Still, diamonds are much rarer in natural occurence than gold, so diamonds were more expensive. So it shouldn’t be discussed as if it’s an evolving issue – the same things that made it valuble/stupid (depending on whom you ask) before are the same factors in play now.And I don’t think it’s that people don’t want the replacement because it’s inexpensive – they want the real thing because it’s expensive. Real diamonds are still more expensive – we can also culture pearls in labratories, and they’re far more perfect than the kind that appear in the wild, and yet it’s less valuable because we can make it. It’s not physics really, or about what’s pretty – just economics.You can bet a turd would be more valuable if it were in short supply.

  2. I always thought diamonds were ugly :-  I would much rather have a colored stone than a boring clear one that everybody has.

  3. Is it a shiny turd? I would buy that. 😛

  4. This post = Lulz Even though you already told me about this o_o

  5. I agree with your friend who said diamonds are boring; as you already know, emeralds are green and therefore the best and most valuable of all the stones ^_^ But, as to whether or not I would require a diamond engagement/wedding ring, it really depends on who the ring is coming from. If, say, I were to marry you (provided we were in an alternate universe where you and I are not related, or else in Alabama where that kind of thing is tolerated), I would not expect you to get me a diamond. You have been careful with your money since we were kids, never wasting money on toys you didn’t really need the way I always did, and I wouldn’t expect that to change just because you got engaged. My actual husband, on the other hand, frequently spends large sums of money on himself, on things like $500 jackets and $150 plain white shirts (“I need nice clothes so people will take me seriously as a businessman”; you can get nice clothes on clearance at the outlet stores, can you not??) or $50-100 dinners with no limit to the number of beers and sake ordered (“It’s a social event with my colleagues and important people at work – I HAVE to go”; why not suggest a cheaper place next time??) and then tells me I have to keep the budget for my own winter jacket under a hundred bucks. I think you will agree, in such a case, that it was only natural and perfectly acceptable for me to demand a ring from the most expensive jewelry stores in the world – with diamonds AND emeralds. Sorry, I’m bitching because he just told me he is going to be late again tonight on account of yet another expensive “work dinner”, the second one this week. I’m thinking of getting all dressed up and going on a date with his credit card to a fancy restaurant…

  6. i have another argument that might be used ….. “diamonds are forever”!!!  except that diamonds usually revert back to coal after a very long time, which isn’t forever …..  but how long does cubic zirconium (is that spelled rite?) last?

  7. awwww, you didnt mention me, who said something like, “I don’t need a diamond or anything like that on my engagement ring.”

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