Noble Am­bi­tions

Smith Journal - - Contents -

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.

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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. •

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