why do we value gold?


Could we have developed currency around elements other than gold and silver? Why couldn’t we have coins made out of platinum, for example?

Interesting article today on the BBC website interviewing Professor Sella (University Collage London) about why, of the 118 elements of the periodic table, it is gold (alongside silver) that we value and use for currency.

According to Prof Sella there are reasons to dismiss all the elements apart from gold and silver. For example, you couldn’t use elements that are gas (such as neon) or liquid (mercury) as currency because it would be impractical to carry them around. Several others (such as arsenic and the other liquid, bromine) are poisonous and so could not be practically used. The alkaline metals (those on the left-hand side of the periodic table) are not stable enough (they react with too many other elements). And, of course, say no more about the radioactive elements. Some of the so-called rare earths (such as cerium) could be used but they tend to be even more rare that gold and are actually quite difficult to distinguish from each other.


Prof Sella also postulates reasons for dismissing the 40 transition and post-transition elements such as copper, lead, iron and aluminium. Many are hard to smelt (needing temperatures as high as 1000 deg C) such as titanium and zirconium or hard to extract such as aluminium. Iron is easier to extract and smelt but rusts too easily. Iron is also too abundant.

Prof Sella lists the 8 noble metals (platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, osmium and ruthenium, gold and silver) as contenders. However, with the exception of silver and gold they are too rare and have other problems (platinum is hard to extract and has a very high melting point for example). So this leaves gold and silver. The choice of these metals is not arbitrary. It turns out that they have exactly the right properties that we need. They are stable, chemically uninteresting, rare (but not too rare), safe, relatively easy to extract, solid at room temperature and with a reasonably low melting temperature.

The article also explains why gold is golden in colour.

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