Scientists debate: Where exactly does our galaxy’s gold come from?

A recent in-depth article from The Atlantic explores competing theories about the cosmic origins of gold
By , Coin World
Published : 03/29/17
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Gold frequently makes global headlines. But not ones like this.

Joshua Sokol of The Atlantic recently discussed the chemistry and cosmic roots of one of the world’s most prized elements.

The origin of gold in our galaxy is a longtime subject of intrigue and debate among astrophysicists.

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“The coda, at least, is relatively clear,” Sokol writes. “About four billion years ago, during a period called the ‘late veneer,’ meteorites flecked with small amounts of precious metals—gold included—hammered the nascent Earth. But the more fundamental question of where gold was forged in the cosmos is still contentious.”

This subject is a complex one, and understanding it is pretty tough for most to understand. However, the foundations of these theories are ones that most can grasp.


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The idea that gold comes from stars certainly has merit.

It was once thought that a supernova, the explosion of a dying star, had the heat and outward energy to turn iron present in the supernova into gold and other heavy metals, and to fling the materials, via those aforementioned meteors, into the galaxy.

But now experts are not so sure.

Today a popular competing theory is that gold is a byproduct, not of a supernova, but of the collision of two neutron stars, which are actually what are present after a star becomes a supernova and its core collapses. The collision of two neutron stars unleashes incredible amounts of energy.

“In the last few orbits around each other before glomming together into a bigger neutron star or a black hole, the pair are wracked by enormous gravitational tides,” Sokol writes. “The collision ejects enormous amounts of material.”

So what’s the difference between the theories? Well, supernovas happen more frequently than neutron star collisions, but would produce and fling less gold.

Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Atlantic to think of the process as chocolate.

“A universe enriched in the r-process elements [including gold] predominantly by supernovas would be like a cookie with a thin, evenly spread glaze of chocolate,” The Atlantic story reads. "By contrast, ‘neutron star mergers are like chocolate chip cookies,’ [Ramirez-Ruis] said. ‘All of the chocolate, or the r process, is concentrated.’ ”

Want to learn more about the two competing theories and the differences between them?

Read Sokol’s full Atlantic story.

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