Origin of heavy metals like gold: Bling Began With Golden Bang in Space, Scientists Find

Bling Began With Golden Bang in Space, Scientists Find

Those who look to the heavens and wish for gold may have the right idea, just the wrong timing. A new scientific look at how elements heavier than iron are formed in the universe suggests that much of the gold on earth may have floated in space for billions of years after being spat out in the collision of two neutron stars. It arrived on earth millions of years ago in meteor showers, researchers said. The origin of heavy metals like gold has long been a scientific mystery, said Don Lamb, an astronomer at the University of Chicago. Now, astronomers at Harvard University have analyzed a gamma ray burst thought to be from a rare neutron star collision and found it helped seed the universe with heavy metals, including enough gold to create a pile that would have about 10 times more mass than the earth’s moon.“We now have this beautiful set of observations that have allowed us to peek at what’s going on, despite nature’s apparent shyness,” Lamb, who wasn’t involved in the research, said in a telephone interview.

The finding, submitted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters, came from observing light that took 3.9 billion years to reach telescopes on the earth’s surface, said Edo Berger, an associate professor of astronomy at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the research.

The collision studied involved a flash of light that lasted for less than two-tenths of a second. The Harvard team gathered its evidence by analyzing an afterglow that occurred when the heavy metals emitted underwent radioactive decay. Among the elements ejected were gold, which sold for about $1,408 an ounce yesterday in New York, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and platinum, which went for about $1,519 an ounce.

Swift Satellite

Berger’s team knew about the explosion after a gamma-ray burst from the collision was detected on June 3 by NASA’s Swift satellite. Though the initial rays from the blast disappeared almost immediately, the Harvard team turned the Hubble Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to that area of the sky. They saw the afterglow of infrared light suggesting the presence of radioactive elements.

“Before this particular paper, we had no idea whether binary mergers could produce anything,” Dong Lai, an astrophysicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who wasn’t involved in the research, said in a telephone interview. “This is the first time we have observational evidence.”

Extreme Explosions

For Berger, who said he doesn’t wear any gold trinkets himself, the finding is consistent with a career-long fascination with things that go bang in the night. Gamma ray bursts interest him because they’re the most extreme explosions human beings know about, he said.

“That’s one of the fun things about working in explosive events, because it turns out the universe has many ways of producing explosions, more than our imagination can come up with,” Berger said in a telephone interview.

Four years ago, Berger helped identify the furthest-known gamma burst in the universe, and he has published research on how a black hole swallowed a star.

“The general perception that people have of the universe is that it’s an enormous place where things happen very slowly,” he said. “But when we look in great detail we realize the universe is extremely dynamic, and on human time scales. It changes from one second to the next.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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