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Carl Sagan famously said "We are made of starstuff." That is, the elements of life, the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, and of course hydrogen, all come from the life processes of normal stars. Through fusion, there is a progression in the atoms that are forged within stars. Hydrogen begets helium, and later on in a star's life, helium begets carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Further fusion reactions occur within a star's core, releasing energy until iron predominates at the core of the star, where the fusion reactions proceed. Iron, though, represents a dead end in the fusion process. Iron cannot undergo a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it takes to react. So the swollen mass of the red giant star that was inflated by the energy released from fusion reactions, suddenly collapses upon itself. The in-falling matter creates critical masses in the outer layers of the star, exploding in a new pressure wave that expels the outer shells of the star. Thus, a typical nova occurs in a galaxy far, far away (even novas in this galaxy are far, far away).

 

A typical nova (or even a supernova) does not have the capability to create the large number of high atomic weight elements like gold, or uranium, or platinum. To create these elements, it takes an even more spectacular event. One such event, the spiraling collision of two neutron stars, was observed on August 17, and three separate types of instruments observed the event. First, the new gravity wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state, and one in Italy, picked up the signal of gravitational waves rippling through space. This was followed within seconds by the detection of high energy gamma rays by the NASA Fermi space telescope. Then, with the directional information available from these instruments, optical telescopes were able to pick up the visible light emanating from the collision of two neutron stars, creating nuclear synthesis of myriads of elements in a blaze of electromagnetic radiation.

 

For those who are not familiar with astrophysics, neutron stars are the remnants of a certain type of supernova that lost their outer shells in an explosion, and contracted into small balls of condensed neutrons. Imagine a star about 1.5 times the mass of our sun, but contracted into a sphere about 12 miles in diameter. The density of this material is incredible. A cubic centimeter (about the size of a sugar cube) would weigh 100 million tons on Earth. Neutron stars are not black holes, though. They emit both light and radio waves. In fact, the first neutron stars were detected because they rotate incredibly fast. Slow ones rotate in little more than a second, while fast ones rotate hundreds of times per second. They can be detected by the radio waves they send out with each vibration. These types of rotating neutron stars are called pulsars.

 

So two of these neutron stars began a death dance spiral 130 million years ago on August 17. They spin together, faster and faster, until they actually collide, and then all hell breaks loose. Megatons of gold, platinum, uranium, and all of the heavy elements are formed from the intense bombardment of neutrons. These atoms form, cool, undergo nuclear reactions and form more stable isotopes that stream out into space. All of this matter spreads out, and settle inside of gas and dust clouds where gravity attracts them. Eventually, the gas cloud gains enough mass to start to collapse into itself, and a solar system with a new star emerges. The heavy elements from the neutron star collision are incorporated into the new planets. If there are enough of these elements in the gas cloud, and if intelligent life evolves on one of the planets, they discover these elements, and perhaps fashion them into rings, or necklaces, or fission bombs.

 

The detectors of the gravity waves are magnificent structures that bear homage to science and to the spirit of the countries that devoted resources to these instruments. Within the US there are two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities. These facilities are situated thousands of miles apart, in order to eliminate any local vibrations from giving false signals. They are L-shaped structures, and the lengths of the arms is 4 kilometers per side. The core of the instrument is a vacuum tube, with lasers and mirrors situated inside to cause a laser beam to split and bounce back and forth for hundreds of times before it is sent to the detector.

 

Normally, laser beams that are split in two and then travel identical path lengths, and then recombined can be positioned so that the beams interfere with each other perfectly, and no light is detected by an instrument at the end of the beam path. But if something affects the length of the path of one of the beams, then the total path length of the two split beams is not the same. When that happens, the photodetector sees a beam. The beam that is detected is affected by the difference in distance between the two paths. Gravity waves cause the length of the path to differ slightly and as the wave sweeps over the two detector beams, first one beam moves with the wave, then the second beam moves. How much is the movement that is detected? One ten thousandth of the width of a proton is the amount of displacement that is caused by a gravity wave.

 

Since there are now 3 gravitational wave observatories located in different parts of the globe, each observatory detects gravity waves at slightly different times. By comparing the time differences between the signals, scientists are able to triangulate and determine where in the sky did the cosmic event happen. Scientists had detected the merger of two black holes several times with the LIGO detectors, but the events of August 2017 was the first time that they were able to see an event occur in the electromagnetic spectrum as well.

 

At this time of year, you will see many ads extolling the virtues of giving a gift of gold. If you do buy a gift of gold or platinum for someone, take a moment to realize that the metal you are buying was formed in a cataclysmic collision billions of years ago, before our sun and planet were born. And marvel that we now have the ability to detect and understand our universe and the wondrous events that shaped our world.

Comments

Jeffrey Kelly Added Nov 27, 2017 - 6:30pm
Very cool article, very different.
Maureen Foster Added Nov 27, 2017 - 7:29pm
It is said that any element found on Earth likely exists on other planets.  However, it’s very unlikely humans have been found on other planets.  So while I can appreciate the amazing things that were necessary for gold to form, more amazing is a human life.  Accordingly, at this time of year, a kiss from a human is far more special than some gold bracelet.    
Katharine Otto Added Nov 27, 2017 - 7:38pm
Clock,
Thanks for the scholarly but understandable description of the neutron star collision.  I recently read Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, so this complements my proton-sized understanding.  Concepts of space, mass, and time, as well as things like gravity waves and all the other "stuff" of the universe boggles the mind.
A. Jones Added Nov 27, 2017 - 9:47pm
later on in a star's life, helium begets carbon,
 
Getting from helium to carbon is not as simple as getting from hydrogen to helium.
 
The scenario you're presenting was first developed in 1946 by British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and called "stellar nucleosynthesis", i.e., all of the elements originated in the fusion furnaces we call stars.
 
During fusion, helium first forms an unstable element called beryllium (one isotope of beryllium is stable on earth and is one of the main components of emerald). For unstable, stellar beryllium to become carbon, several extremely unlikely things have to occur in a very short amount of time. So unlikely were these events, that Hoyle wrote:
 
"Would you not say to yourself, 'Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.' A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."
opher goodwin Added Nov 28, 2017 - 7:16am
I think I read somewhere that all the gold that has ever been mined would only fill an Olympic size swimming pool. It's pretty rare.
But then so are we. To quote Joni - 'We are stardust - we are golden'.
opher goodwin Added Nov 28, 2017 - 7:18am
I love the boggling nature of stars, space and the universe. It puts us in perspective. We are but microbes crawling around on a minor planet in the outer arm of an average galaxy. Yet we still think we're special and there are those who believe that it all happens just for our benefit.
Fusion is ace.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 28, 2017 - 9:17am
Maureen - I agree that for us, the relative abundance of the elements needed for life is far more important than the heavy elements. I thought their formation was worth reading about.
 
Katharine - I also read Neil's book and learned some things. In my own way I want to be able to explain complex scientific concepts so that non-science educated people can understand. If I ever don't explain something well enough on a post like this, call me out, and I'll explain further.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 28, 2017 - 9:24am
A. Jones - one of the great difficulties in writing a post that I try to limit to about 1000 words is the necessity to leave some things out. The entire fusion food chain is a bit much to explain in a short post, but I appreciate your mentioning it and Hoyle. When I was growing up I remember Hoyle well, and in the early '60's when I was in first and second grade, I thought he was wrong with his steady-state universe concept. I liked the big bang! Of course, being that young, a big explosion was much more attractive.
 
Hoyle's view of how the principles of the universe came together is very much like mine, and is why I put up with the organized church, because at the heart of the universe, there is order, and logic would favor chaos.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 28, 2017 - 9:27am
Opher - I agree about the incredible nature of the universe. I find it amazing that in my lifetime, we've been able to observe and deduce so much about space. I think the observation of planets around other stars is an incredible feat. When you hear about the discovery of free oxygen in the atmosphere of an earthlike planet in the "Goldilocks" zone, know that this discovery is likely confirmation of life on another solar system.
Dino Manalis Added Nov 28, 2017 - 9:53am
Gold is precious and has value!
opher goodwin Added Nov 28, 2017 - 9:59am
EABC - I find it incredible. I remember lying on my back in a meadow on a summer's day looking up at the blue sky and realising that it went on for ever. It sent me reeling. I felt like I was falling up into it.
The more I learn about galaxies, curvature of space, string theory, black holes, quasars and quantum mechanics the more bizarre and wonderful the universe is.
The sooner we find life on another planet the sooner we break out of our medieval perspective on life, the universe and god. It will throw the cat among the pigeons.
I often wonder what we would be like if another human race had survived. It would have put pay to our egocentric views.
opher goodwin Added Nov 28, 2017 - 10:00am
Dino - gold has only the value we place on it. It is a good conductor and doesn't tarnish; it is soft and easy to work - apart from that it's value is artificial.
rycK the JFK Democrat Added Nov 28, 2017 - 2:48pm
"  Carl Sagan famously said "We are made of starstuff.""
 
He was stoned on weed at the time, as he was all the time. Taking advice from a doper is like predicting the future in a used cigarette ash tray. 
wsucram15 Added Nov 28, 2017 - 4:04pm
Well this was interesting as always and informative.  Tis is  topic I actually have to read s-l-o-w-l-y  to understand.  Although in looking at the stars while laying on your back in a field, everything seems possible.  Its even better through a huge telescope.  Fascinating topic and  Tyson is the right person to explain it to the non-scientific mind.
Stone-Eater Friedli Added Nov 28, 2017 - 4:21pm
EABC
 
Just my taste, that subject - thanks :-) A 10/000th of a proton. Amazing. I guess there will always be something smaller and bigger (as is currently) discovered. It probably is as indefinite as the universe is.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 28, 2017 - 4:45pm
rycK, you continue to amaze me with your lack of meaningful comments. Please continue as it is entertaining.
 
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 28, 2017 - 4:51pm
Jeanne, thanks. Glad I was able to explain it to you. I always have my wife the musician read my scientific posts first to make sure I've defined everything, so with her help, I'll keep writing the occasional science post. Political ones do seem to come easier, though.
 
Stone - I read that Einstein through general relativity predicted that gravity waves existed. He never thought that it would be practical to detect them, and after really learning about the details of the LIGO observatories, I can understand his skepticism.
 
I made it through a course on special relativity, but never got into the really heavy math of general relativity. I'm content to let others describe it to me. I really did love my physics course covering quantum and special relativity, though. You have to be a little weird to like that sort of thing.
mark henry smith Added Nov 28, 2017 - 6:13pm
Thank you so much EABC. How things actually work in our universe is something that entire segments of the population have no clue about so they cling to silly stories filled with superstition.
 
The people who believe in superstition think science is pure fakery meant to pollute their minds from perfect understanding. The people who believe in science aren't so sure what superstition is, since they understand that their knowledge is limited and imperfect and always will be. One side attracts zealots who want the questions to stop and the other attracts thinkers who rejoice in questioning. This is the problem of humanity, how we convince these groups to get along as the world grows small.
 
So, here's my story. A long time ago a race of intelligent creatures evolved before the earth was even a glint in the eye of the great whatever. These intelligent creatures did what all intelligent creatures do, evolved to make their survival less tenuous. Like us they came to dominate their space and in dominating their space they learned an important lesson, survival in a limited space requires strict rule of behavior for a creature with insatiable appetites and unlimited curiosity. They wanted to taste everything, use everything, know everything, and this meant, as there appeared more and more of them, a recipe for disaster. They could consume entire species in the blink of an eye, before the importance of said species was completely understood.
 
This happened again and again and the beautiful web of creation that they now realized was the key to a good life, a beautiful life, was lost. They felt terrible for what they had done. So they decided to devote all of their energy to recreating that beautiful web of life in other locales. They developed ships that allowed them to move around the stars planting the seeds of life in all kinds of potential gardens. They would occasionally return to check up on the results as different worlds grew at different rates in different times since the plantings happened light years apart.
 
The rules were simple, observe, don't interact with the creation, but when they came here they found us, a creature that was starting to look and act like them. It was a shock, since they had no way of knowing that what they were planting was a reproduction of their own evolution. The creatures took some things with them that they wanted to reintroduce on their own planet, but left us to fend for ourselves. And here we are.
 
These ideas were formed without pot, acid, or drugs of any kind, but if anyone has any soma, I think I should try some. Thanks. I know I digress somatimes.
mark henry smith Added Nov 28, 2017 - 6:16pm
Love to read about science. Fusion is our only hope for the future and knowledge of the wonders of nature rolling in the bushes down by the riverside.
A. Jones Added Nov 28, 2017 - 7:48pm
Also mentioned by Carl Sagan were the three levels, or "Types", of civilization proposed by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev. The types of civilization correspond with how much energy each civilization can harness for purposes of communication; viz.,
 
Type I Civilization: also called a planetary civilization—can use and store all of the energy which reaches its planet from its parent star.
 
Type II Civilization: also called a stellar civilization—can harness the total energy of its planet's parent star; i.e., a device which would encompass the entire star and transfer its energy to the planet.
 
Type III Civilization: also called a galactic civilization—can control energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy.
 
The implication of the above Kardashev Scale is that civilizations obviously cannot progress from one type to another unless it gets rid of its environmentalists.
opher goodwin Added Nov 29, 2017 - 4:27am
Mark - fusion is the big one. When we have perfected that one we will have abundant energy without pollution. That's the dream.
opher goodwin Added Nov 29, 2017 - 4:30am
A.Jones - well there's a conundrum - get rid of all the environmentalists and you'd likely not have an environment to live in.
Sagan's thinking was way off. We do not need to harness energy from stars. We could have more than enough from fusion.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 29, 2017 - 10:00am
Mark - thanks for your comments. Interesting digression. My soma connection is temporarily out of commission, right now only have single malt.
 
A. Jones and Opher - I was thinking of the type II civilization when they discovered a star that had a huge change in the luminosity on an irregular schedule. Almost as if it was being partially obscured by some sort of device intended to harness energy. I think they now believe there is another non-technical reason for the luminosity changes.
rycK the JFK Democrat Added Nov 29, 2017 - 1:42pm
As to fusion, we are no where close to bottling up a fusion container using super cooled magnets while sustaining a temp of several million degrees. 
 
Super hot next to super cold?? No way. 
 
An anti-matter generator would be better if it could be made. 
A. Jones Added Nov 29, 2017 - 9:09pm
fusion is the big one. When we have perfected that one we will have abundant energy without pollution.
 
All production of energy leaves waste products (pollution), including fusion.
A. Jones Added Nov 29, 2017 - 9:13pm
Almost as if it was being partially obscured by some sort of device intended to harness energy.
 
Right. One hypothetical device is the "Dyson Sphere", imagined by physicist Freeman Dyson. It's a sphere of photosensitive material that completely surrounds a star, converting 100% of the light and heat into power.
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 30, 2017 - 10:10am
rycK - thanks for the response. Bottling up the conditions required for fusion has always been the issue. And so far, people are only concerned with breakeven (fusion reaction generating more energy than is input to create the conditions for fusion). Nowhere have I seen anyone provide a proposal for extracting the excess energy and using it for work.
 
On the other hand, never give up on Lockheed Martin and the skunk works:
https://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/compact-fusion.html
 
Also - I wrote a post a few months ago on the thorium cycle for fission power. While thorium does create radioactive waste, it is shorter lived and does not need to be contained for geological time periods, like the U235 / U238 cycle. Thorium does not create transuranium elements through its combustion cycle. Take a look at my previous posts if you want to know something about that option for power generation.
rycK the JFK Democrat Added Nov 30, 2017 - 11:59am
Even,
 
"Nowhere have I seen anyone provide a proposal for extracting the excess energy and using it for work."
 
As a physical chemist the engineering hurdles are immense.  We need a way to initiate fusion in a sustaining and equilibrium way that avoids having super hot next to super cold. So far, it looks like the system is endothermic needing massive external energy to just start off the process thus there is nothing, yet, to deliver energy for external work. 
mark henry smith Added Nov 30, 2017 - 4:54pm
On FB I read an article about a lab in England that had sustained an endothermic fusion reaction. I had read that the waste products from a fusion reaction were helium, pretty much, and that the heat generated leaves nothing radioactive. I never heard that we were dealing with temperatures in the millions of degrees, more in the tens of thousands.
 
Love these discussions, and it might be that anti matter, more precisely called anti energy, because we're aren't sure yet if it should really be called matter, might be a more plausible source of energy, if we can ever make contact with it without destroying ourselves.
A. Jones Added Dec 3, 2017 - 5:49pm
I had read that the waste products from a fusion reaction were helium, pretty much, and that the heat generated leaves nothing radioactive.
 
Fusion leaves behind radioactive waste that dissipates quickly to background levels. The main problem with fusion energy (aside from the technical issue of achieving a sustained reaction) is the deuterium it requires as nuclear fuel. Deuterium is an isotope of the hydrogen atom (one proton, one electron, one neutron) that appears naturally in sea water. The problem is how to separate it from the regular H2O. Usually, it's done by electrolysis — passing electricity through water — which then brings up the question of how you are going to generate the electricity for that. Fossil fuels, most likely.
Even A Broken Clock Added Dec 4, 2017 - 11:02am
rycK - do you work as a physical chemist? I still remember my year spent learning about thermodynamics and quantum principles. That was one of the harder classes I had.
 
Mark - There's a difference between absolute temperature and the energy concentration. Inside of a tokamak (the spheroidal magnetic container for the plasma), the plasma is extremely hot (high temperature), but low density. It's basically a gas swirling around extremely fast, fast enough to overcome the natural repulsion of positively charged nuclei in order to merge in fusion. If I've done the math right, the density of the plasma in a tokamak is about 1/1000 that of the atmosphere.
 
A. Jones - If I remember correctly, fusion bombs use both deuterium and tritium (a hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons). I am not certain what they are using for fusion research.
 
Incidentally - the latest Science had an article about a new physics linear accelerator being built a Michigan State that will explore the conditions that exist in these neutron star collisions and shed additional information on nucleosynthesis of the heavier elements.  
rycK the JFK Democrat Added Dec 4, 2017 - 2:34pm
Even A Broken Clock 
 
"rycK - do you work as a physical chemist? I still remember my year spent learning about thermodynamics and quantum principles. That was one of the harder classes I had."
 
Took some rough math courses at UCLA too.  
 
Yes, I was physical organic, then Yale Med School hired me to do analytical  biochemistry with HPLC. Then,  a major chem company hired me to do research in silica and coatings and they sold the business so I ended as a clinical chemist in clinical analyzers. 
 
Retired 15 years now, and mooching off gummint. 
rycK the JFK Democrat Added Dec 4, 2017 - 2:38pm
Even a Broken Clock
 
"Incidentally - the latest Science had an article about a new physics linear accelerator being built a Michigan State that will explore the conditions that exist in these neutron star collisions and shed additional information on nucleosynthesis of the heavier elements. "
 
I was up to date on quantum mechanics by 1981 where Pi mesons and such were new
 
I am not a fan of Schrodinger's Equation
 

 
There is zero proof for this. 
mark henry smith Added Dec 4, 2017 - 3:09pm
Man, you guys blow me away like a fusion bomb. I never took any courses in any of this stuff, but I come from a family of scientists and mathematicians who loved expounding on their work at the dinner table. One was Jack Aston, a physicist who once held the world record for lowest temperature ever achieved at his lab at PSU. He wasn't that impressed with himself since he only got within hundredths of a degree of absolute zero. Now that concept fascinates me too and super conductivity.
 
I think fusion has a real chance. I think spooky force at a distance will change how we see space time as we learn to manipulate it. I think dark energy will allow terrible people to make anti-matter bombs that could decimate life wherever it's found. Gotta take the good with the bad. 

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