Moment of Science: Gold

“The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.” -The Wizard of Id
It's soft, shiny, and one of mankind's most precious metals! Dan Smith is digging up some facts that are as good as gold. 🥇
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 12:12 PM EDT
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From the wilds of the Klondike to Irish folklore, it’s captivated our imaginations and adorned the wealthy the world over for millennia. Let’s pick up the pickaxe and head out in search of gold.

* It should go without saying that gold has a long and complicated history, with the earliest example of processed gold dating back to about 4000 BC. El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, drove many a man mad on a fruitless expedition, and wasted countless lives in the search. The California Gold Rush was no less dangerous for the native population, as 300,000 prospectors -- later dubbed the 49ers -- descended upon the West Coast. The eventual coast-to-coast connection with the Transcontinental Railroad was fittingly finished using the Golden Spike.

* Despite the mad rush for glory, the world’s oceans actually hold the greatest gold reservoir -- about 20 million tons, up to 8x as much as has ever been mined. However, it’s very diluted -- about 13 billionths of a gram per liter of ocean water -- and the current cost to extract it simply isn’t worth its weight in gold.

* It’s one of the densest metals on earth and doesn’t rust, yet gold is also fairly soft and malleable. If you took just a single ounce of it and hammered it into a sheet, you’d end up with a good 100 square feet. That means just 36 pounds of it could cover an entire football field -- though I don’t think the NFL is gonna take my Super Bowl idea anytime soon... no, not even the 49ers. You can also stretch it into incredibly thin wiring -- it’s a great conductor of heat and electricity, but again, cost. If money were no object, that same ounce you hammered out the sheet with, could stretch into 50 miles of wire!

* Gold’s rarity is well-documented -- it’s estimated at 1 to 5 out of every billion atoms of Earth rock -- yet 3100 metric tons of it were mined just last year. For comparison, though, about 2.6 billion metric tons of iron ore were mined in the same timeframe.

* Gold even has great applications in space. Some satellite parts use it for temperature regulation, and astronaut visors have a coating 2 millionths of an inch thick, which helps reduce sun glare.

* Finally, in case you’re wondering where the largest gold reserve is... it’s American, but not Fort Knox. That honor goes to a vault 80 feet below the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and holds gold bullion worth billions -- nearly half a million bars of gold in all.

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