[Above: An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. Gold bars have been added by the author (astrophysicists don’t think it likely that pre-cast bullion will emerge from such a collision). Image (minus gold): Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc
IT HAS FEW PRACTICAL USES, but people have died for it; wars have been fought for it; kings and queens have been crowned with it and civilisations have risen and fallen because of it.
Gold is arguably the most coveted of all the chemical elements but how it came to exist at all is a problem that has long puzzled scientists.
Prevailing wisdom has the Universe beginning life as an expanding mass of energy 13.8billion years ago in a ‘Big Bang’. From that single speck of infinite energy, matter coalesced from energy and the first simple elements of hydrogen and helium formed in an initial rush of fusion that petered out after just a few seconds.
Nothing more complex than lithium (whose nucleus contains three protons and three neutrons) was created in the Big Bang and yet today, 13.8billion years later, we live in a Universe filled with heavy elements, like gold, whose atomic nuclei contains hundreds of protons and neutrons. How was such complexity created from such simplicity?