The number of people who work with physical materials of any kind has dwindled. Most of us -- including the list of MacArthur grant recipients -- are information workers. Our product is a new way of thinking about the world or strategies for defeating a disease or a new way of understanding the mind. I, personally, wouldn't want to work with my hands every day, but I'm jealous of people with the cast of mind to do so.
So, I note with great pleasure that a silversmith, Ubaldo Vitali of Maplewood, New Jersey, won one of the coveted awards, which gives you a half a million dollars to do with as you please. Vitali both creates new silver pieces and restores old ones. "I am a silversmith. I am a conservator/restorer of metal work. I am an art historian," Vitali said. "All those things combined together." Trained in art history and sculpture, his family has been working silver for generations.
Time was, metallurgy was a very important science. Knowing how to extract and control metal was paramount for utilitarian and decorative purposes. Then came the explosion of synthetic materials in the middle of the 20th century. I think we lost the feeling that Civilization Depended on Metal. Plastics replaced metal for many uses and allowed new types of products to be created, which made old metal ones obsolete. By weight, an average car is now just 63 percent steel and iron.
But let's not get crazy here. Metallurgy is still awesome -- and bordering on alchemy. We start with rocks, apply heat, chemistry, and intelligence and end up with this: