I have a slender ring with a glowing nugget of Guyana gold, accented with pale side slips of grooved platinum, a poignant parting girlhood gift from my older sister as she tearfully left our Georgetown home permanently, decades ago, for a new life in the Netherlands. Glance at wedding bands, the shining studs in the ears, the tack on a tie or the thin bracelet you may dare to wear, and stop to consider its real remarkable origins.
In the hinterland, where acres of trees once stood, the precious substance may have been water-blasted from a wasted, pockmarked landscape of slippery pits and stagnant pools, plucked as a dull, tiny fragment from a meandering muddle of mud and sand by an artisanal miner’s weary, wrinkled fingers. If mere dust, it would have likely been mixed with slithering quicksilver to form an amalgam, then heated and the toxic mercury vaporised, leaving behind a little lump of gold.
On Monday, the world finally received stunning public confirmation of the consequential cosmic cataclysm in which gold, platinum and many other elements heavier than iron, such as uranium, are actually formed. The violent merger of neutron stars that launched a galactic odyssey, like those that initially sent the metals across to our country on this third planet from the sun over eons, started without warning on August 17, 2017.
Sensors were triggered at the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO), this one in Hanford, near Washington, in the United States. LIGO is ultra-sensitive, designed to detect a change in distance between its mirrors 1/10,000th the width of a proton, equivalent to measuring the distance to the nearest star to an accuracy smaller than the width of a human hair!
“Transformed into sound, the Hanford signal was a long 100-second chirp that ended in a sudden whoop 1,000 cycles per second, two octaves above middle C,” The New York Times wrote of the whirring whine and abrupt “Pop!” stellar recording that made me jump, and which was aired extensively.
American pioneers Rainer Weiss and Kip S. Thorne, with Barry C. Barish, the scientist and leader who brought the ambitious LIGO project that is a collaborative venture with several European nations to completion, ensured gravitational waves were eventually detected in a clash of black holes. Their unprecedented disclosure last year gained the trio, the maximum number per award, the prestigious 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics, which was revealed recently.
A century ago, brilliant theoretical physicist Albert Einstein predicted in his general theory of relativity that such a massive collision would distort the very fabric of space and time itself, but he never thought we would be able to witness it. Like the illustrative stone cast into a pond, the cataclysmic disturbance would twist and ripple outward at the speed of light, causing the waves to become progressively smaller as they spread across the universe and towards us. Einstein would go on to win the Nobel in 1921.
Shortly after 8.41 am on August 17, following the sound and international message alerts, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope orbiting the Earth picked up an astounding but fleeting pulse of high-energy light from the powerful explosion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recalled Monday.
To excited astronomers hastily scrambling before their telescopes around the globe, including in Chile, South America, to extensively examine the occurrence, in an accelerating race against time, it was immediately reported and pinpointed as a short gamma-ray burst, the brightest and most extreme energy explosion in the universe. Simultaneously this week, related discovery announcements were made by teams working together and a flood of papers discussing the historic observations were published online, with a single document in the Astrophysical Journal acknowledging 4,500 co-authors!
It marked the first time, NASA scientists had detected light directly sourced to a “kilonova” caused by the gravitational-wave (GW) event. Electromagnetic radiation was also produced by the rare phenomenon of the two massive colliding dead or neutron stars with shrunken, dense cores in the relatively nearby galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Hydra, named for the mythical snake. A light year is a unit of astronomical distance equivalent to the distance that light travels in one year, which is nearly 6 million miles.
In a statement, the University of California (UC) explained that a neutron star forms when a massive star runs out of fuel and blows up, throwing off its outer layers and leaving behind a collapsed core composed almost entirely of neutrons. Neutrons are the uncharged particles in the nucleus of an atom, where they are bound together with positively charged protons. In a neutron star, they are packed together compactly as in the nucleus of an atom, resulting in an object with one to three times the mass of our sun but only about 12 miles wide.
“These objects are so dense, a cup of neutron star material would weigh as much as Mount Everest, and a teaspoon would weigh a billion tons. It’s as dense as matter can get without collapsing into a black hole,” UC added. Professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, who is UC’s chair of astronomy and astrophysics, said the findings support the theory that neutron star mergers can account for all the gold in the universe, as well as about half of all the other elements heavier than iron.
Since astronomers were quickly able to locate the fusion site, they were able to verify the chemical seals in the bright blue glow of the lighter elements which gradually gave way to two weeks of red radiance from gold and the heavier elements of the Periodic Table. Incomprehensibly vast, the universe features light darting at a constant, finite speed of an astounding 186,000 miles per second. In comparison, a traveller, going at the same tempo, would circumnavigate the equator approximately 7.5 times in one second.
With the media describing the event as “ancient cosmic alchemy” and “a cosmic treasure hunt,” Astronomy Professor Edo Berger of Harvard University would declare in his paper: “It is rare for the birth of a new field of astrophysics to be pinpointed to a singular event.”
Astrophysicist at the University of Auckland, Dr. J.J. Eldridge raved “We’re all made of stardust, but gold, silver and platinum are made of neutron stardust.” He told The Telegraph in the UK, “In this particular event, it’s likely that hundreds or thousands of Earth masses of gold and other elements were made. If the rate of neutron stars mergers is as high as we now think, these dying stars are now the source of most of these elements in the universe.”
Dr. Samantha Oates, of the University of Warwick, pointed out that: “This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: What happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made? In the space of about a week all three of these mysteries were solved.”
The news comes as Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) disclosed that gold declarations as at September 29, 2017 had reached 475,202 ounces, with nearly half from small and medium scale miners, and worth some US$604 million. This year’s target is 700,000 ounces and the predictions are for higher official production in the last quarter, as is customary, MNR said.
Meanwhile, an Australian and a Canadian company are exploring for commercial deposits of lithium, tantalum and other rare earth metals in Region Seven. Tantalum is a hard, blue-gray, lustrous element that is highly corrosion-resistant and valued in alloys, laboratory equipment and electronic capacitators for mobile phones, video game systems and computers.
Lithium is the lightest known metal and can be alloyed with aluminium, copper, manganese, and cadmium to make strong aircraft material, and long lasting batteries. It is used for special glasses and ceramics, including the Mount Palomar telescope’s 200 inch-mirror operated by California Institute of Technology.
ID is peering up at the Deepavali night sky thinking of the ancient meteorites that bombarded the planet 200 million years ago with riches by “lucky coincidence,” bringing billions of tonnes of stellar gold and precious metals forged from nuclear fires, and left in ore deposits.