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Answering Questions, Part II

I began imagining Miriam bat Isaac when in 1987 I encountered Maria Hebrea. I was taking a course on the historical development of concepts in chemistry when the professor assigned a paper. I had no idea what to write about, and time was running out.

And so, as a last resort, I roamed the aisles of the library’s stacks to see whether anything caught my eye. Nothing. Nothing caught my eye, that is, but something caught my foot, the left one as a matter of fact. A volume, rather heavy, fell off the shelf, landed on my great toe, and opened to a page about an alchemist living in first-century CE Roman Alexandria, Maria Hebrea. Here I’d been studying chemistry for years and had never heard of this woman, lauded as the most celebrated in the Western World for 1500 years! Who was she, and why hadn’t I ever heard of her?

Of course, I’d never heard of her. Practicing alchemy was a capital offense. So not much more than her pseudonym has survived. And the story of chemistry was re-written after the Scientific Revolution of the eighteenth century anyway. Nevertheless, I’d wonder about her whenever I’d have a spare moment at a traffic light or in line at the supermarket. What was it like for her to walk down the dusty streets of Alexandria having to hide her life’s work?

Well, that’s how I came to discover Maria Hebrea. Creating Miriam bat Isaac was just a matter of letting my imagination fill in the details. And now you see why it’s so hard for me to answer last week’s question. How long does it take me to write a book? Well, the creation of Miriam bat Isaac took me three decades.

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