Monday 28th September 2020

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Cosmic cataclysm

An exceedingly rare event might help explain the genesis of gold

by Greg Klein

It happened some 3.9 billion light years away, lasted less than one-fifth of a second and created gold worth about $10 octillion. (That’s one followed by 28 zeroes.) Even more significant to the boffins fascinated by these events, the June 3 gamma ray burst might have provided the “smoking gun” to support a theory about gold’s cosmic origins. That’s the message announced July 17 by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

They believe the gamma ray burst supports a 20-year-old theory that gold results from collisions of neutron stars, not from supernovae. Although the collisions happen only about once every 10,000 to 100,000 years, they could account for all the gold in the universe.

Standing before an illustration of colliding neutron stars, Edo Berger theorizes about how gold comes to be

Standing before an illustration of colliding neutron stars,
Edo Berger theorizes about how gold comes to be.

Dr. Edo Berger addressed the July 17 press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explaining how investigators found their smoking gun. A NASA satellite spotted the June 3 gamma ray burst, and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and later the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on the action. Resulting from the burst was a black hole and an afterglow. But scientists saw the afterglow followed by an infrared light. They believe that suggests radioactivity from the formation of uranium and thorium in an event that would also create other heavy elements like lead and gold.

The fact that the radioactive elements are neutron-rich supports the theory that the gamma ray burst was caused by two colliding neutron stars. As remnants of exploding supernovae, Berger explained, the dead stars orbit each other and, while circling, continually move closer until they collide. The explosion flings out material that creates radioactive elements, along with base and precious metals.

Debris from that one burst equals about 1% of our sun’s mass and “about 10 parts per million of that is gold,” Berger maintained. “That corresponds to several times the mass of our moon, just in gold, just in this one event.” His price estimate came to $10 octillion.

To gold bugs, the words “cosmic cataclysm” might bring to mind a sudden, suspicious sell-off, or maybe some market-shattering musing from Ben Bernanke. But eggheads take those terms literally when speculating about the origin of the universe, stars, galaxies, planets and even gold.

While geologists focus their attention in the other direction, they often look to the heavens for clues about the rocks they study. Meteorites, for example, offer hints about what this planet might have been like before processes like planetary differentiation into core, mantle and crust. And one theory has it that a “terminal bombardment” of meteorites brought gold to earth. A September 2011 Nature article stated that “iron-loving” metals like gold would be hidden at much, much deeper depths were they not carried here after the earth cooled.

The bombardment would have occurred relatively recently, probably no more than 3.8 billion years ago.

Watch a video of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center announcement.

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