Jewellery, ornamentation, decoration. From wedding rings to circuit boards, humans have found many aesthetic and technological uses for a certain element on the periodic table.
Gold is indicated by the periodic symbol Au (leftover from the Latin word aurum, or shining dawn, an obvious reference to its color) and is a remarkable chemical, if only for its blandness and inertia. Gold barely reacts with other elements. In fact, gold has found uses as a chemical catalyst, a substance that enhances the rate of a chemical reaction but is not changed by the reaction, and modern research is exploring the role of very small gold particles (nanoparticles) as an inert deliverer of cancer treatments to specific areas of the body.
But the Greeks and Romans weren’t aware of gold’s catalytic properties or nanoparticles, and yet from ancient times gold has been gathered and used by humans. So, what’s the deal?
Firstly, gold proved easy enough for early man to mine, though there is not a great deal of gold available to us. All of the gold that has been mined by humans could fit on a one meter thick layer on an average soccer field, or arranged into a 20 meter cube. Fascinatingly, there is far more gold that humans have no way to access, as it is diluted in micro-concentrations in the Earth’s crust and the waters of the ocean.
Also, gold was rare enough to be considered valuable enough to establish currency, but common enough that the coins would be of reasonable size (as opposed to ultra-rare metals like, say, platinum). It also is easily smeltable, and, unlike silver, does not tarnish.
The result is that gold across the world has been used frequently as currency. In fact, the United States only dropped the gold standard for its currency in 1971. Additionally, its color, inability to tarnish, and smelting properties have made it an excellent choice for jewellery and the decorative arts.
Even today, with plated metals providing easy and less expensive alternatives to solid gold, gold is considered a symbol of wealth and beauty.
The technological uses for gold have only increased as well. From its early days as strictly a currency, gold can be found in chemistry labs as mentioned above, but also is featured in every smart phone and computer in trace amounts on the circuit board. As in its other uses, its chemical inertia makes it useful here as well. Silver and copper may conduct more, but cannot be used for such small, internal mechanisms as a result of tarnishing.
With all these technological uses, it’s even more striking to walk through a museum and see galleries of gold decorations. It provides a new context for the degree of wealth and opulence its owners were capable of.
And it makes me grateful that I (who frequently loses small objects) don’t own any gold myself. Too much pressure.