Christopher came into the kitchen where his mother was making dinner and despondently dropped into a table chair with a thump, alerting her that he was not happy.
“Hey Bud. what are you doing back so early? I wasn’t expecting you for another couple of hours.”
“The movie was sold out so Mark and I walked around the mall for a while and then decided to just come home.”
“Oh, and you’re upset that you didn’t get to see the movie. Well, maybe you two could catch the matinee tomorr. . .”
“No. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m not upset about that.”
“Hmm, it’s not trash night. Are you going to make me guess what’s bothering you?
“I’m just frustrated.”
“Frustrated. Okay, good start, but the silence you’re about to hear is me waiting for something that sounds like details. . . ”
“The price of gold., why does it have to cost so much?”
She pulled out a chair across the table from him and sat down. “You’re upset about the cost of gold? There has to be a story behind this. Come on kiddo, give it up.”
“I wanted to buy Angela a gold cross for her birthday so after we left the theater we went into a jewelry store because I saw one I liked in their window, but mom, the guy who showed it to me said it cost almost six hundred dollars.”
“A gold cross? For Angela? Chris, you’re only eleven years old. What’s going on? Are you going to ask her to be your girl friend?”
“What? No – no mom. We’re still just good friends like we’ve been forever.” He sat up a bit straighter and set his jaw to better explain. “Just before Christmas last year, we were sitting near each other during lunch and I overheard her talking with her friends about wanting one. She also said that she was not likely going to get one because her family is so poor because her dad hasn’t been able to work since his accident. I just thought how cool it would be to give her one as a gift for her birthday next month”
“Ah. Okay. I think I understand now,” and she settled back into the chair, planning her response. “This is a really nice thing you’re considering Chris, but you need to think it through a bit more. Do you know that even if you had the money and bought it for her that many people, maybe even her parents would misunderstand your meaning because such a nice present looks very romantic. You would risk embarrassing her.”
“Well, I’ve seen other crosses in other stores but most looked cheap. I want a nice one that she would like to wear, not like toy dress up jewellery. I thought solid gold would be best. But if everyone would think it’s romantic, then it’s not a good idea.”
“Well, I still like most of your idea and think we can think up something similar that would not embarrass her.”
“But I’m still curious Mom, why would gold have to mean romantic and why is it so expensive?
“It’s often romantic because it’s expensive and it’s expensive because it’s so rare.
“Why is it rare? If we want more, can’t we just dig more mines?”
“You know, a student in my physics class just asked me this a few months ago. I think you’ll find the answer interesting. We can’t just dig more up mostly because its very hard to find and even when we find it, there’s not much in any one place.”
“Okay then. Why don’t we just make it?
“That’s the interesting part. You likely saw cheap, gold-colored plastic crosses while looking for a real gold one right?”
“Yea. Plastic ones only cost a few bucks, but they all look like painted plastic.”
“To make those, we had to drill for the oil used to make the plastic, then refine it and mix it with other chemicals and color it before molding it into the shape of a cross. Plastic is very cheap to make but we can’t ‘make‘ gold. We have to find it.”
“I don’t understand. Why can’t we make it?”
Because it’s an ‘element’ right off the periodic table of elements. There’s a chart of it in your science book. With a small exception, we can’t make elements because we can’t make the atoms they’re made of.
“For example, if we have all the elements we need, we can assemble them to make many of the molecules we want, like plastic. Some molecules have to be grown, like trees for wood or grain and water. If we feed chickens the right stuff they can make eggs, which would be really tough for us to make ourselves. But everything on the periodic table has to be found somewhere. There are only a few exceptions, and most of those are so unstable that they fall apart in seconds.”
“Gold is on the periodic table so we have to find it.
“But let’s say you wanted to get her a brass cross. Copper and zinc are both on the periodic table and are plentiful so are inexpensive. If you have them, you could make all the brass you want. Brass looks a lot like gold, but is normally a darker yellow.”
“So we can make brass, but not gold. How was gold made, or even copper and zinc? Where do the elements come from?’
“That is more difficult to explain, but tell me if this makes sense.” She points to periodic table. “The first element, hydrogen, is very common and if you could squeeze hydrogen atoms together with enough heat, they would fuse into helium. If you added more pressure, more heat and more time, you would start creating more elements from the table. You can’t just stir them together, you have to both squeeze and heat them up – a lot.”
“So we could do this, right?”
“We can fuse some atoms to make some elements, but it’s very expensive and difficult. The closest place where hydrogen is naturally being cooked into heavier elements is in the sun.”
“The sun?! You mean that it takes a star to make elements from hydrogen?”
“Correct and for many of the heavier elements, like gold, our sun is not even big enough. It can’t make gold. Scientists are pretty sure that larger stars are needed and those larger stars have to blow up which creates even more heat and pressure. Those explosions create the spectacular nebulas you’ve seen photos of.
“All stars begin with lots of hydrogen which ignites and burns to create heavier elements. If the star begins with enough, it keeps on burning and creating other elements, but somewhere in its life, the star runs out of hydrogen fuel, so it cools off which causes the star to cave in on itself – which then causes more heat again, but none of the elements left in the star ignites until the heat gets so high that the star just explodes, which is what has to happen to create gold.”
Christopher made a face of disbelief. “So the gold we find on earth was created by a star exploding?”
“That’s what astrophysicists think. But it means, the gold was just flying around space until it got caught when our earth was forming, it ended up somewhere in the ground and has been there all along until someone dug it up. ”
Christopher sat back in his chair and thought. “So the gold in your wedding ring came from an exploded star! I had no idea! That’s so cool!
I can’t see nebulas in the sky. How far away are they?”
“Far enough that you need a telescope because otherwise they just look like another star. As I recall, the closet one is the ‘Helix Planetary Nebula’ and it’s something like 700 lights years from here.”
“Mom, I’m amazed that we have any gold at all. It sounds impossible.”
“A lot of elements did make it to where the earth was formed.” She held up her ring finger. “My ring is proof that some gold landed here. All the elements we have around us came from either a star or nebula.”
You know, I think I saw a nice brass cross and chain a while back at either Target or Wal-Mart for less than twenty bucks. Mow the lawns a few times and you’d have the money for your gift, plus no one would confuse a brass gift as being romantic.”
He looked askance at his mom before asking, “How many is a ‘few’?”
“You can negotiate that with Dad and later when you meet the girl who deserves a gift that came so far away, you’ll be ready go with gold.”