All That Glitters Isn’t True
What I’m about to do is pretty risky. There might actually be a rule against this on the internet. It’s going to come as a shock to many, but there’s a silver lining. Or, more accurately, a gold lining.
I think Neil deGrasse Tyson was wrong about something. Maybe.
Before you mass-unfollow and grab the pitchforks, let me explain. The back story begins with the origin of gold. It’s one of those wonderful cosmological tales that we love to tell, because it takes one of our most treasured substances, and tells not only why it is rare but how it connects us to the universe.
Many storytellers of astrophysics have recited a history of gold that ends with the following punchline: It’s born in supernovas. See, in the core of a young star, small elements like hydrogen fuse into helium. This releases a huge amount of energy, which is actually what makes a star a star, and keeps it “inflated” so it doesn’t collapse in on itself. Eventually, though, the star runs out of hydrogen and starts to squish. The increased pressure then provides enough energy for the helium to start fusing! This process of fusion, collapse and bigger fusion proceeds until we hit iron, element 56 … then it sort of fizzles out. Past iron, then there’s just not enough energy to keep fusing bigger atoms or keep the star inflated.
So we get a supernova. BOOM!
According to the old story, that’s where gold comes from, a tiny, minor by-product of supernovas, a rare contaminant that would then float through space and maybe, if it was lucky, along with things like iron and platinum, find its way into the crust of a planet like Earth.
I’m not kidding about the “rare” part. All the gold ever collected on Earth would only make a cube 21 meters on a side.
BUT… Based on new observations of colliding neutron stars, a team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian center for astrophysics says that there might be another way to make gold. Instead if in supernovas themselves, they claim it’s created in the violent collisions of neutron stars.
Yes, to get a neutron star, you still need a supernova. And to get two neutron stars close enough to collide, you need binary supernovas. But the gold itself, according to the new research, is not made in the original boom, but instead powered by the collision of the neutron stars, whose medium-sized atomic leftovers are quantumly smooshed into small amounts of shiny stuff. According to their observations, such neutron-neutron violence accounts for all the gold in the universe.
Yeah, it’s a minor difference. Gold still comes from space, and that’s awesome. But this isn’t really a story about Neil deGrasse Tyson being wrong, or anyone being wrong for that matter. It’s a story to remind us all how science works. How it takes what we know, shakes all the parts around, and finds new secrets right under our nose. How it says “Hey, that thing you know? Throw it away. This is how it really works.” And most importantly, this new knowledge itself can be proven wrong when further scrutinized, like the hottest toy of the season recalled for using toxic paint. Maybe this new science will be proven wrong. Or maybe they’ll both be right, sharing the gold-plated trophy for Creation of Precious Metals.
As Stuart Firestein says: “Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.”
This is how science proceeds. And that’s more valuable than any gold. So are we cool, Neil?
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