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interesting facts about the history of gold

The History of Gold From Supernovas to Gold Fever

Carl Sandburg wrote in his poem “The People, Yes”: ‘No ear is deaf to the song that gold sings.’

Gold has built empires and been the cause of their destruction. Since humanity became civilized it has it has led to the deaths of millions of people, those who were trying to mine it, those who were trying steal it, as well as those who were trying to hold on to it. It has even permeated our language in many ways. For example, the best that we have in a particular category we call ‘the gold standard’. “Go for the gold” encourages us to do our best in whatever endeavor we take on. A person who is considerate and caring is said to have a ‘heart of gold’. And when gold is discovered somewhere, ‘gold fever’ takes over the lives of otherwise sensible people trying to get to it.

For over 6000 years, dating back to the late neolithic age, our most beautiful jewelry such as pendants, earrings, and bracelets have been made from gold. In many cultures a ring of gold worn on a finger symbolizes the bond between two individuals who vow to love and nurture each other for the rest of their lives, thus giving the gold a somewhat sacred connotation.

The purity of gold is measured in karats, with pure 100% gold being 24 karat. But pure gold is generally too soft to be worn as jewelry, so it is usually mixed with another metal such as copper, zinc, or silver to give it strength. Most gold jewelry is usually 14 karat – 58.3% gold, 18 karat – 75% gold, or 22 karat –91.67% pure gold.

The word karat goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times and was based on the weight of the bean of the carob tree, a tree in the legume family and native to the Mediterranean region. It is similar to the honey locust which is native to North America. The original Greek word was keration, which became carat in French, and karat in English.

A carob bean weighs 200 milligrams and became a unit of measurement in many Mediterranean countries. A gold object’s purity could be measured when weighed on a scale with a number of carob beans. Pure gold would be heavier than gold mixed with copper or other alloys. The purer the gold the higher the karat value, thus the higher the monetary value. By the 16th century karat was used as the standard of measurement of gold purity.

For several reasons gold has been used in dentistry for thousands of years. Gold has strength and malleability, it is non-corrosive, and it is biocompatible in that most humans do not have an allergic reaction to it. The use of gold in dentistry goes back at least to ancient Egyptian times. In fact, an embalmed body found in the 4,500-year-old large Giza pyramid in Egypt had a gold band in its mouth used to hold two teeth together. Today gold is often used to make fillings and crowns.

Gold has been the basis for coinage in numerous cultures for thousands of years going back to Egyptian, Greek, Lydian, and Roman times. Gold was the basis of American currency from the time of British colonization until 1971 when it ceased to be the basis for the United States dollar. Due to the cost of the Vietnam war and a growing trade deficit, the US no longer had enough gold to redeem the dollars held by foreign nations.

Gold is a major international trading commodity. For example, there is a lively market for United States one-ounce gold coins which are currently selling for nearly two thousand dollars each. Fortunes are still being made and lost in the buying and selling of gold.

Gold is an iconic symbol of the wealth of several nations, such as the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Russia, China, and others. The United States owns more gold than any other country, over 8,000 tons at the present time, and it is stored at three locations: West Point, New York, Denver, Colorado, and the most at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Gold owned by the United States is currently worth over $345 billion. Although this is a tremendous amount of money, it is interesting to note that in 2022 it is over $113 billion less than the combined wealth of the two richest people in the United States.

Gold has been important in much of the world’s literature. The story of King Midas, for example, expresses how avarice and the lust for gold can lead to disaster. Midas wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. Then after Midas had turned his daughter into gold, he realized his mistake and had the god Dionysus remove the blessing that had become a curse. Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Gold Bug” written in 1843 describes how a golden scarab beetle led character William Legrand to find a pirate treasure on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. It is still one of the most popular tales in American literature.

Beyond its aesthetic and monetary value, gold has many unique features that make it important in industry. For example, it is malleable. One gram of gold can be beaten into a thin sheet one-meter square. Since it does not corrode and is a highly efficient conductor, it is used extensively in electronics. In fact, the cell phone you are carrying has about 50 milligrams of gold in it, worth around 50 cents, depending on the price of gold today. The powerful James Webb Telescope which is now positioned in space about one million miles from Earth, has a thin layer of gold on its beryllium mirrors that help it reflect wavelengths of infrared light.

It is interesting that gold’s poorer cousin, pyrite, is also used extensively in industry, especially electronics. Pyrite looks so much like gold it is called “fools gold”. Found in a number of igneous, metamorphic. And sedimentary rock formations, it is much more abundant than gold and considerably less expensive. 

When gold is discovered somewhere it can cause a stampede of miners called a ‘gold rush’ trying to get to it. The frenzy of trying to get to the gold before someone else claims it is called ‘gold fever.’ One of the most famous episodes in American history was the California gold rush which started when James Marshall, an employee of John Sutter who had built a sawmill on the American River near Sacramento, found gold nuggets in the river. The gold rush of 1849 brought in so many miners, saloon keepers, merchants, and others who followed the miners, that in one year California had enough people to become the 31st US state. Other gold rushes have occurred in the Yukon Territory of Canada, Alaska, and in South Africa where today the world’s deepest gold mine, 2.5 miles deep, is located.

Leonardo da Vinci, who lived from 1452 until 1518, wrote that gold is: “not the meanest of Nature’s products, but the most excellent…which is begotten in the sun, in as much as it has more resemblance to it than to anything else that is, and no created thing is more enduring than gold.”

Leonardo can be forgiven for thinking that gold comes from the sun. Although our gold has the same color as the sun, it did not originate there, nor will the sun ever produce it. There were no telescopes in Leonardo’s day to look deeply into the sky and see where gold actually comes from. Although, as he pointed out, gold has the same yellowish hue as our sun, it is only created in stars much larger and farther away than the sun.

Another Carl Sandburg quote, this one from his poem “Under the Capitol Dome”, gives a more scientific and accurate account of where gold comes from. It reads: “The orderly marches, Of the night stars and constellations, When looked at by powerful telescopes, Hold flagrant and flaming confusions.” It is out there in space far beyond our sun and solar system that gold is created.

The James Webb Space Telescope is giving us the best view we Earthlings have ever had of where all of our precious gold comes from. Gold is created in the “flagrant and flaming confusions” of the extreme heat and pressure generated in the cores of giant stars when they explode into supernovas and in the gigantic explosion caused by the collision of two neutron stars. Your gold jewelry is the product of the unimaginable heat, pressure, and explosive power of the largest and densest stars in the universe.

Stars create heat and light through a process called stellar nucleosynthesis in which hydrogen atoms with one proton and one electron are fused together into deuterium, tritium, and then helium atoms with two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons. Often when stars much larger than our sun cease fusing their hydrogen into helium, there is still enough heat and pressure in them to continue fusing elements heavier than helium. Beyond helium nuclear fusion creates elements such as carbon with 6 protons, oxygen with 8 protons, neon with 10 protons, and on and on until iron with 26 protons is created. Many stars stop here, but some of the largest and hottest stars keep their fusion going beyond iron. 

Being a star requires maintaining a balancing act between the outward pushing pressure created by nuclear fusion in the core of the star and the constant inward pushing pressure of gravity. Stellar explosions happen when the star uses up most of its fuel and the outward pushing pressure of the fusion process inside a star decreases to the point where the external force of gravity causes a rapid collapse of the star. The internal heat and pressure then become so great so fast that the core material rebounds in a huge outward expulsion of gas and dust that we call a supernova. In the center of this huge explosion, fusion beyond iron takes place and we get the heaviest of the elements such as gold with 79 protons, mercury with 80, lead with 82, and on to uranium with 92 protons, the heaviest of the naturally occurring elements.

As large as it is compared to our Earth, our sun is considered only a medium sized star, and that is actually a good thing for us. The largest stars which experience much greater heat and pressure in their core than our sun, can use up their hydrogen in a matter of a few million years. However, our sun which has been fusing hydrogen atoms at the rate of some 600 tons per second for over 4.5 billion years, is only half way through fusing its immense supply of hydrogen fuel.

Fortunately, our solar system’s long history has given us time to evolve from primates into humans and we have enough time left to continue our evolution process into the future. In about five billion years as it nears the end of its life and expands into a red giant before it finally collapses into a ‘white dwarf’, the sun will produce large amounts of carbon and oxygen and trace amounts of other elements, but not gold. Although it will never give us gold, most of us surely would take our sun’s warmth and light over a pot of gold any day. Without the sun there would be no humans to enjoy the luster of gold.

Gold with its 79 protons and 79 electrons has gone through several stellar fusion processes beyond its atomic ancestor, hydrogen with its one proton and one electron. Then when a huge star becomes a supernova and explodes, the gold and other atoms the super-hot star has created are sent shooting through the universe for millions of miles in all directions at incredibly high speeds. In time these atoms join other atoms in gigantic dense clouds of cosmic dust like the ones we see when look at the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night. Both the Hubble and the James Webb telescopes have taken great pictures of cosmic dust clouds where stars are being born.

The word ‘dust’ might be a poor choice of words for the clouds of particles that partially obscure our view of the center of the Milky Way or that we see in the Orion Nebula. Dust for most of us has a negative connotation. The dust we are most accustomed to is just a dry, powdery substance that accumulates on our furniture. But interstellar dust is actually billions and billions of many different kinds of atoms. For example, cosmic dust can contain particles of ice from a comet, or compounds of carbon that could become organic amino acids. In fact, some cosmic dust clusters can contain up to 20% carbon. It can also contain hydrogen atoms, and a variety of other elements such as gold that have been ejected from a supernova, all of it just waiting for gravity to coalesce it back into stars and planets in our Universe’s great recycling process. Dry dust on Earth can be a sign of neglect and old age. Cosmic dust creates light and new life.

Like everything else in the universe, stars are born, live for a number of years then die. Most stars go through the same processes from dust to star, to red giant, to supernova, or even to neutron star or black hole, largely depending on their size. Our sun, a medium-sized star in about 5 billion years will go through a stage as a red giant and eventually shrink to a white dwarf consisting mainly of carbon and oxygen atoms and no longer capable of providing warmth and light to Earth. Other stars much larger than our sun also will go through a red giant stage but could explode into a supernova, and if a star is large enough and its gravity strong enough, it could collapse into a dense neutron star, or the largest of stars with enormous amount of gravity could become stellar black holes. They are called black because their pull of gravity is so strong that not even photons of light can leave them.

A star visible to us which is in its red giant stage is Betelgeuse in the upper left corner of the Orion constellation. It is a huge star, about 950 times larger than our sun, and if it were in put in place of our sun would possibly reach all the way to the orbit of Jupiter. It is expected to explode into a supernova in the next few thousand years. Fortunately for us it is approximately 640 light years away so our descendants will probably not be affected by it too much. It will, however, put on quite a light show and spew tons of gold dust into space possibly sparking an interstellar gold rush when the gold winds up on asteroids, exoplanets and other celestial bodies. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “There’s more gold on these asteroids than has ever been mined in the history of the world”. Future entrepreneurs with powerful rockets will no doubt go after it.

Occasionally we Earthlings catch a glimpse of an exploding supernova, but none have happened close enough for us to go after the gold. A famous one was spotted in February 1987 by astronomer Ian Sheldon, and it has no doubt ejected tons of useful elements, including gold. It is located 168,000 light years away from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy near our Milky Way. At that distance it is not a threat to life on Earth, but at the same time it is much too far for even the most intrepid gold miner to ‘bring home the gold’. It is believed that SN1987A is on its way to collapsing into a neutron star, at least as far as astronomers can tell from current observations.

The quest for gold has been going on for thousands of years. Along with mining it, we’ve tried to make it in a variety of ways. Alchemy, for example, was a serious endeavor in the middle-ages and even into the 1700s to make gold from lead and other elements. Although many alchemists inadvertently made some important chemical discoveries, even the most famous alchemist, Isaac Newton, did not understand the process of stellar nucleosynthesis inside a star that created gold and other heavy metals. The alchemists did not realize that any attempt to create gold in a laboratory was futile.

It is interesting that Isaac Newton who made a number of important scientific discoveries, such as the law of gravity, that sunlight was a spectrum of many colors, and who was the co-inventor of calculus would be interested in a pseudo-science like alchemy. But as Professor William Newman of Indiana University put it: “…for a man of Newton’s intellect and desire to get to the bottom of nature, it really makes perfect sense for him to be involved in alchemy”. Perhaps to Newton and other scientists such as Robert Boyle who also practiced the art, alchemy was primarily an endeavor in the science of chemistry. Producing gold would have been a welcome bonus, but maybe it was not necessarily the main objective.

The heat and pressure needed to make gold have not been duplicated on Earth. So far, we have not even been able to produce hydrogen fusion for more than a few seconds, and gold is many fusion steps beyond hydrogen. Some people have considered trying to extract gold from sea water, but it contains only about 1 gram of gold per 100 million tons of water. Based on our current state of technology, that ratio will not pay for a miner’s time and equipment.

One reason gold is in such great demand is that it has as many uses from dentistry, to jewelry to electronics, to Tutankhamun’s burial mask, as just about any metal found on Earth. We just cannot seem to get enough of it. When gold fever overcomes someone, he or she is willing to give up home and comfort to go mine it or go prospecting.

Perhaps once scientists perfect the process of fusing hydrogen atoms to generate electricity, they can carry the technology on for enough more atomic fusions to produce gold. Since that could take many years, for now, the only way we can satisfy our gold fever is to keep digging.

Ted McCormack

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