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Gold: Shiny star matter

Humans have been decorating themselves with gold since at least 4000 B.C., according to the National Mining Association. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, gold appears throughout the ancient world. A Stone Age woman found buriedoutside of London wore a strand of gold around her neck; Celts in the third century B.C. wore gold dental implants; a Chinese king who died in 128 B.C. was buried with gold-gilded chariots and thousands of other precious objects. 

Gold is malleable and shiny, making it a good metalworking material. Chemically speaking, gold is a transition metal. Transition metals are unique, because they can bond with other elements using not just their outermost shell of electrons (the negatively charged particles that whirl around the nucleus), but also the outermost two shells. This happens because the large number of electrons in transition metals interferes with the usual orderly sorting of electrons into shells around the nucleus.

All the gold that makes up earrings and cufflinks and electronics components today originated in space: According to a 2011 paper in the journal Nature, a meteor bombardment nearly 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of a gold-and-precious-metal-rich space rock to Earth. Tracing gold's origin back even further takes us into deep space. A 2013 study in The Astrophysical Journal Letters found that all of the gold in the universe was likely birthed during the collisions of dead stars known as neutron stars.

Veins of gold mined from the earth are the result of hot fluids flowing through gold-bearing rock, picking up gold and concentrating it in fractures, according to the American Museum of Natural History(AMNH).

Who knew?

  • Two-thirds of the world's gold is mined in South Africa, according to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
  • Seventy-eight percent of the world's yearly supply of gold is used in jewelry, according to the AMNH. The rest goes to electronics and dental and medical uses.
  • The atomic symbol of gold, Au, comes from the Latin word for gold, aurum.
  • Astronaut helmets come equipped with a visor coated with a thin layer of gold. The gold blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.
  • The world's largest gold crystal is the size of a golf ball and comes from Venezuela. The 7.7-ounce (217.78 grams) crystal is worth about $1.5 million.
  • Earthquakes can create gold: A 2013 study in the journal Nature Geoscience found that during earthquakes, water in faults and fractures vaporizes, leaving gold behind.
  • Because gold is soft, it is typically mixed with other metals, or alloys, to give it strength. Measured on the karat scale, pure gold is 24 karats. The word karat derives from the Arabic qirat, or carob bean, according to Merriam-Webster. Carob beans were once used by gold sellers to balance their scales. 
  • The first purely gold coins were manufactured in the Asia Minor kingdom of Lydia in 560 B.C., according to the National Mining Association.
  • Gold has a number of artificial, unstable isotopes (the exact number depends on the scientist you consult), but occurs naturally only as Au-197.
  • You can eat gold … if you really want to. Gourmet shops sell edible gold leaf and flakes that add glitter to everything from pastries to vodka to olive oil. Don't fear for your stomach: The gold isn't digested and just passes right through, according to Edible Gold, a company that sells gold leaf.