By celebrating research that sounds laughable, Marc Abrahams makes a serious point about science.
THE IDEA, REVEREND PRESCOTT FORD JERNEGAN TOLD HIS PARISHIONERS, HAD COME TO HIM “IN A HEAVENLY VISION”. SEAWATER CONTAINED GOLD, AND HE KNEW HOW TO GET IT. ALL HE NEEDED WERE SOME INVESTORS TO TURN THIS VISION INTO A DIVINE, MONEY-SPINNING ACTUALITY.
Had they been aware of his background, Jernegan’s New England flock may have been more reluctant to shell out their precious savings. As a young buck, Jernegan had developed schemes for cheating his mates out of marbles. In her memoirs, his sister recalled him sneaking up on a ship’s cook, snatching his cap, and throwing it overboard. More recently, he had been sacked from two church postings. Hardly the makings of a good shepherd.
Still, it was the turn of the 20th century, and gold fever was high. So high that, when a chemist claimed there was roughly one grain of gold to be gleaned from every tonne of seawater, it didn’t take long for people to crunch the numbers. By one calculation, the ocean was worth $ 48 trillion. What happened when Jernegan heard the news scarcely needs detailing. The priest ‘invented’ an electrical contraption he claimed could suck precious metals out of water. After he staged a series of demonstrations that appeared to conjure gold from the ocean floor, investors threw millions at the project – at which point the priest scrammed, and the magical machine he left behind stopped working.
Of course, even in 1896 duping others for gold was nothing new. Alchemists, swindlers and madcap professors have been trying to manufacture gold – or pretending to – for centuries. Ships were launched to plunder it; colonies were founded to pilfer it; lands have been named in its honour (the Gold Coast; Costa Rica; the Solomon Islands); and numerous gods were credited with creating it. (The Aztecs attributed the stuff to their sun god, Tonatiuh, who supposedly donated some nuggets every time he took a dump. Holy shit, indeed.)
What’s most remarkable about the stuff, though, is the extent to which people have coveted it in spite of the fact that, until recently, it had no practical use. At no point in human history has gold been used to improve transport, fight world hunger or save lives. As plenty of patients have found out the expensive way, it does not cure epilepsy, fix migraines, reverse baldness, remedy impotence, alleviate melancholy or quell alcoholism – though many gold-peddling quacks over the years claimed it did. Indeed, for most of human history gold was prized only because it was shiny and malleable, and prizing shiny, malleable things is what humans do. (Gold flakes have even been found in caves dating back 40,000 years.)
These days the element does have some practical applications. It is commonly used as a conductor in electronic circuitry, while NASA covers its astronauts’ visors with a thin gold layer to shield against solar radiation. Needless to say, none of these uses were what compelled Spanish conquistadors to invade the Americas.
What makes gold so valuable today is its scarcity. By the calculations of geologists, the total amount we’ve mined would barely fill three and a half Olympic swimming pools. And yet according to the rudiments of planet formation, that’s way more than we should have expected to find. To put the science simply, all of Earth’s original gold ought to have sunk to its core aeons ago. That we’re still digging it up means some of it must have come from elsewhere – namely, space.
According to astrophysicists, most of the gold on our fingers and inside our bank vaults came from colliding neutron stars that conjured the stuff out of the ether – a power a Connecticut priest would one day also claim to wield. Viewed this way, the Aztec belief that gold was spat out of the sun actually wasn’t too wide of the mark. This also means every time an astronaut ventures into space, one of our most valued substances makes a short trip closer to home. •