Humans are made of gold — silver and platinum too

Humans are made of gold — silver and platinum too
Neutron stars rip each other apart to form black holeNASA

  • A new discovery by two astrophysicists tells us that everyone on Earth has a little bit of gold, silver and platinum in them.
  • The explosion between two neutron stars 4.6 billion years ago gave Earth 0.3% of its precious metals.
  • If such an explosion were to take place today, the radiation would ‘outshine the night sky’.
Billions and billions of years ago, before the world even existed, a collision between two neutron stars gave the Earth its most commercially precious metals — gold, silver, platinum and uranium.

The existence of such a cosmic event also means that everyone on Earth has a little bit of these elements in them according to Szabolcs Marka from Columbia University and Imre Bartos from the University of Florida, who made the discovery.

In each of us we would find an eyelash worth of these elements, mostly in the form of iodine, which is essential to life.

Imre Bartos, University of Florida and co-author of ‘A nearby neutron-star merger explains the actinide abundances in the early Solar System’

A collision between the stars took place around 1,000 light years away from where Earth is currently located. The ensuing fire forged the 0.3% of the Earth’s heaviest metals according to two astrophysicists who reported their findings in the May 2 issue of Nature.

They assert that if such an explosion was to take place today rather than 4.6 billion years ago, the radiation would ‘outshine the entire night sky’.

Forging the elements

Scientists knew that a collision between two neutron stars can produce heavy metals in 2017, when a collision 130 million light years away — an event labeled GW170817 — occurred.

Humans are made of gold — silver and platinum too
The hot, dense cloud of debris from the neutron stars produced something called the 'kilonova', which occurs when two neutron stars eventually spin fast enough and close enough to each break apart and then merge together releasing energy in a gamma-ray burst and a flash of light NASA

But this is the first time that the origin of heavy metals on Earth, specifically, has come to light.

Bartos and Scazbolcs analysed radioactive isotopes from early Solar System meteorites to find an element called actinides — heavy elements that have protons, or atomic numbers, between 89 to 103.

And, since these isotopes have a half life — which means there’s only a 50% chance that an atom will have undergone nuclear decay — the astrophysicists used the actinides to reconstruct how abundant the elements were during the early Solar System.

Ending up on Earth

In order to determine when exactly the collision took place, they had to run simulations until they found one that fit — 100 million years before the Earth came into existence; 1,000 light years from the Solar System. But it was still inside the Milky Way, when the gas cloud was still shaping the Solar System as we know it.

Humans are made of gold — silver and platinum too
X-rays (blue) were the last type of light observed in the remaining jet, spreading out laterally during the GW170817 eventNASA

Since the event took place such a long time ago, there isn’t much of it left to find.

Even so, Marka says, “Our results address a fundamental quest of humanity: Where did we come from and where are we going,” explaining further, “It is very difficult to describe the tremendous emotions we felt when we realised what we had found and what it means for the future as we search for an explanation of our place in the Universe.”

Where did mankind come from and where is it going, is one the most elemental questions which science has been trying to answer. Even Dan Brown’s most recent novel, Origin, has a brilliant computer scientist running simulations to determine how life came into being.

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