Human beings were extracting gold from the ground and rivers for thousands of years before the birth of the Periodic Table of chemical elements in the late 19th century. About as soon as scientists began to discover and synthesize new elements, however, the profound differences between groups of related elements started to take shape.
Perhaps the most puzzling among these groups were the heavier elements, and their role in the mysterious process of radiation. Discoveries in this area helped bring the fields of chemistry, physics, and astronomy closer together in exciting and unprecedented ways.
Another chapter in this scientific narrative was written this autumn, as an astounding event detected by astronomers this past August may hold the key to understanding the cosmic origins of gold and the precious metals!
Because outer space is so vast, it takes the light from distant stars and galaxies millions of years to reach our own skies. This means that, in some sense, gazing out beyond our galaxy through a telescope is like looking back in time.
On August 17th, astronomers caught sight of an incredible occurrence: a pair of neutron stars colliding with one another. This happened off in the distant cosmos many eons ago (an estimated 130 million years), but is only just now detectable from Earth. The startling discovery was reported across the news media this week, accompanied by imaginative graphics (like the one below) depicting the dazzling light show such a collision must have created.
More important to the scientists studying the neutron star collision was what their instruments measured about the cosmic collision: the stars ejected mind-boggling amounts of heavy elements, including precious metals like gold and platinum and silver.
The data confirmed what was only scientific theory to this point. The laws of physics predict that only such a massive, high-density, high-energy event could generate elements heavier than iron. Even the explosion of a supernova apparently lacks the punch for such a task. The spiraling dance and ultimate collision of the two incomprehensibly dense neutron stars was not just wondrous in an aesthetic sense, but also fit the bill as a primary source or origin of precious metals in the universe. It has been dubbed a "kilonova."
The astronomers who studied the collision have estimated that the amount of heavy elements generated in the event is thousands of times the mass of the entire planet Earth! According to calculations by Daniel Kasen, a theoretical astrophysicist at Cal-Berkeley who spoke to NPR, the amount of gold produced was roughly 200 Earth masses while the amount of platinum was 500 Earth masses. It's compelling evidence that similar collisions could account for all of the lustrous gold, silver, and platinum found right here at home.
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