What is Gold? - Chemical Elements

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What is Gold?

Gold bees
Gold jewelry shaped like bees,
from Bronze Age Greece

Gold is a much heavier atom than iron, with 79 protons and 79 electrons in each atom. Gold is too heavy for even red giant stars to make through nuclear fusion. The only way to make gold is when a red giant star explodes in a supernova. When that happens, the tremendously high temperatures of the explosion itself - hundreds of millions of degrees - force the star's atoms to mix together and make gold (and other heavy atoms like uranium).

two gold ornaments - lions? - facing each other
Gold plaques from China during the Chou Dynasty, ca. 800 BC

All of the gold in the universe was made during these supernova explosions. Because it's so hard to make, there's much less gold in the universe than there are lighter atoms like hydrogen or carbon or silica. Since gold also happens to be shiny and pretty, we think of it as valuable.

More about gold

Bibliography and further reading about gold:

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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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