Aurum Potestas Est

We as a race and a culture have a massive love affair with gold. It is the basis of our currency, the definitive mark of wealth and status, in some ways the bedrock of our society. We hoard it, we covet it, we hide it away except for special occasions, but we never really use it.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about gold; for something around which we have based our economy on, it is remarkably useless. To be sure, gold has many advantageous properties; it is the best thermal and electrical conductor and is pretty easy to shape, leading it to be used widely in contacts for computing and on the engine cover for the McLaren F1 supercar. But other than these, relatively minor, uses, gold is something we keep safe rather than make use of; it has none of the ubiquity nor usefulness of such metals as steel or copper. So why are we on the gold standard? Why not base our economy around iron, around copper, around praseodymium (a long shot, I will admit), something a bit more functional? What makes gold so special?

In part we can blame gold’s chemical nature; as a transition metal it is hard, tough, and a solid at room temperature, making it able to be mined, extracted, transported and used with ease and without degenerating and breaking too easily. It is also very malleable, meaning it can be shaped easily to form coins and jewellery; shaping into coins is especially important in order to standardise the weight of meta worth a particular amount. However, by far its most defining chemical feature is its reactivity; gold is very chemically stable in its pure, unionised, ‘native’ form, meaning it is unreactive, particularly with such common substances as; for this reason it is often referred to as a noble metal. This means gold is usually found native, making it easier to identify and mine, but is also means that gold products take millennia to oxidise and tarnish, if they do so at all. Therefore, gold holds its purity like no other chemical (shush, helium & co.), and this means it holds its value like nothing else. Even silver, another noble and comparatively precious metal, will blacken eventually and lose its perfection, but not gold. To an economist, gold is eternal, and this makes it the most stable and safe of all potential investments. Nothing can replace it, it is always a safe bet; a fine thing to base an economy on.

However, just as important as gold’s refusal to tarnish and protect is beauty is the simple presence of a beauty to protect. This is partly put down to the uniqueness of its colour; in the world around us there are many greens, blues, blacks, browns and whites, as well as the odd purple. However, red and yellow are (fire and a few types of fish and flower excepted) comparatively rare, and only four chemical elements that we commonly come across are red or yellow in colour; phosphorus, sulphur, copper and gold. And rusty iron but… just no. Of the others, phosphorus (red) is rather dangerous given its propensity to burst into flames, is also commonly found as a boring old white element, and is rather reactive, meaning it is not often found in its reddish form. Sulphur is also reactive, also burns and also readily forms compounds; but these compounds have the added bonus of stinking to high heaven. It is partly for this reason, and partly for the fact that it turns blood-red when molten, that brimstone (aka sulphur) is heavily associated with hell, punishment and general sinfulness in the Bible and that it would be rather an unpopular choice to base an economy on. In any case, the two non-metals do not have any of the properties that the transition metals of copper and gold do; those of being malleable, hard, having a high melting point, and being shiny and pwettiful. Gold edged out over copper partly for its unreactivity as explored above (after time copper loses its reddish beauty and takes on a, but also because of its deep, beautiful, lustrous finish. That beauty made it precious to us, made it something we desired and lusted after, and (combined with gold’s relative rarity, which could be an entire section of its own) made it valuable. This value allows relatively small amounts of gold to represent large quantities of worth and value, and justifies its use as coinage, bullion and an economic standard.

However, for me the key feature of gold’s place as our defining scale of value concerns its relative uselessness. Consider the following scenario; in the years preceding the birth of Christ, the technology, warfare and overall political situation of the day was governed by one material, bronze. It was used to make swords, armour, jewellery, the lot; until one day some smartarse figured out how to smelt iron. Iron was easier to work than bronze, allowing better stuff to be made, and with some skill it could be turned into steel. Steel was stronger as well as more malleable than bronze, and could be tempered to change its properties; over time, skilled metalsmiths even learned how to make the edge of a sword blade harder than the centre, making it better at cutting whilst the core absorbed the impact. This was all several hundred years in the future, but in the end the result was the same; bronze fell from grace and its societal value slumped. It is still around today, but it will never again enjoy its place as the metal that ruled the world.

Now, consider if that metal had, instead of bronze, been gold. Something that had been ultra-precious, the king of all metals, reduced to something that was merely valuable. It had been trumped by iron, and iron would have this connotation of being better than it; gold’s value would have dropped. In any economic system, even a primitive one, having the value of the substance around which your economy is based change in value would be catastrophic; when Mansa Musa travelled from Mali on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he stopped off in Cairo, then the home of the world’s foremost gold trade, and spent so much gold that the non-Malian world had never known about that the price of gold collapsed and it took more than a decade for the Egyptian economy to recover. If gold were to have a purpose, it could be usurped; we might find something better, we might decide we don’t need that any more, and thus gold’s value, once supported by those wishing to buy it for this purpose, would drop. Gold is used so little that this simply doesn’t happen, making it the most economically stable substance; it is valuable precisely and solely because we want it to be and, strange though it may seem, gold is always in fashion. Economically as well as chemically, gold is uniquely stable- the perfect choice around which to base a global economy.

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F=ma

On Christmas Day 1642, a baby boy was born to a well-off Lincolnshire family in Woolsthorpe Manor. His childhood was somewhat chaotic; his father had died before he was born, and his mother remarried (to a stepfather he came to acutely dislike) when he was three. He was later to run away from school, discovered he hated the farming alternative and returned to become the school’s top pupil. He was also to later attend Trinity College Cambridge; oh, and became arguably the greatest scientist and mathematician of all time. His name was Isaac Newton.

Newton started off in a small way, developing binomial theorem; a technique used to expand powers of polynomials, which is a kind of fundamental technique used pretty much everywhere in modern science and mathematics; the advanced mathematical equivalent of knowing that 2 x 4 = 8. Oh, and did I mention that he was still a student at this point? Taking a break from his Cambridge career for a couple of years due to the minor inconvenience of the Great Plague, he whiled away the hours inventing calculus, which he finalised upon his return to Cambridge. Calculus is the collective name for differentiating and integrating, which allows one to find out the rate at which something is occurring, the gradient of a graph and the area under it algebraically; plus enabling us to reverse all of the above processes. This makes it sound like rather a neat and useful gimmick, but belies the fact that it allows us to mathematically describe everything from water flowing through a pipe to how aeroplanes fly (the Euler equations mentioned in my aerodynamics posts come from advanced calculus), and the discovery of it alone would have been enough to warrant Newton’s place in the history books. OK, and Leibniz who discovered pretty much the same thing at roughly the same time, but he got there later than Newton. So there.

However, discovering the most important mathematical tool to modern scientists and engineers was clearly not enough to occupy Newton’s prodigious mind during his downtime, so he also turned his attention to optics, aka the behaviour of light. He began by discovering that white light was comprised of all colours, revolutionising all contemporary scientific understanding of light itself by suggesting that coloured objects did not create their own colour, but reflected only certain portions of already coloured light. He combined this with discovering diffraction; that light shone through glass or another transparent material at an angle will bend. This then lead him to explain how telescopes worked, why the existing designs (based around refracting light through a lens) were flawed, and to design an entirely new type of telescope (the reflecting telescope) that is used in all modern astronomical equipment, allowing us to study, look at and map the universe like never before. Oh, and he also took the time to theorise the existence of photons (he called them corpuscles), which wouldn’t be discovered for another 250 years.

When that got boring, Newton turned his attention to a subject that he had first fiddled around with during his calculus time: gravity. Nowadays gravity is a concept taught to every schoolchild, but in Newton’s day the idea that objects fall to earth was barely even considered. Aristotle’s theories dictated that every object ‘wanted’ to be in a state of stillness on the ground unless disturbed, and Newton was the first person to make a serious challenge to that theory in nearly two millennia (whether an apple tree was involved in his discovery is heavily disputed). Not only did he and colleague Robert Hooke define the force of gravity, but they also discovered the inverse-square law for its behaviour (aka if you multiply the distance you are away from a planet by 2, then you will decrease the gravitational force on you by 2 squared, or 4) and turned it into an equation (F=-GMm/r^2). This single equation would explain Kepler’s work on celestial mechanics, accurately predict the orbit of the ****ing planets (predictions based, just to remind you, on the thoughts of one bloke on earth with little technology more advanced than a pen and paper) and form the basis of his subsequent book: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”.

Principia, as it is commonly known, is probably the single most important piece of scientific writing ever written. Not only does it set down all Newton’s gravitational theories and explore their consequences (in minute detail; the book in its original Latin is bigger than a pair of good-sized bricks), but he later defines the concepts of mass, momentum and force properly for the first time; indeed, his definitions survive to this day and have yet to be improved upon.  He also set down his three laws of motion: velocity is constant unless a force acts upon an object, the acceleration of an object is proportional to the force acting on it and the object’s mass (summarised in the title of this post) and action and reaction are equal and opposite. These three laws not only tore two thousand years of scientific theory to shreds, but nowadays underlie everything we understand about object mechanics; indeed, no flaw was found in Newton’s equations until relativity was discovered 250 years later, which only really applies to objects travelling at around 100,000 kilometres per second or greater; not something Newton was ever likely to come across.

Isaac Newton’s life outside science was no less successful; he was something of an amateur alchemist and when he was appointed Master of the Royal Mint (a post he held for 30 years until his death; there is speculation his alchemical meddling may have resulted in mercury poisoning) he used those skills to great affect in assessing coinage, in an effort to fight Britain’s massive forgery problem. He was successful in this endeavour and later became the first man to put Britain onto the gold, rather than silver, standard, reflecting his knowledge of the superior chemical qualities of the latter metal (see another previous post). He is still considered by many to be the greatest genius who ever lived, and I can see where those people are coming from.

However, the reason I find Newton especially interesting concerns his private life. Newton was a notoriously hard man to get along with; he never married, almost certainly died a virgin and is reported to have only laughed once in his life (when somebody asked him what was the point in studying Euclid. The joke is somewhat highbrow, I’ll admit). His was a lonely existence, largely friendless, and he lived, basically for his work (he has been posthumously diagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to Asperger’s syndrome). In an age when we are used to such charismatic scientists as Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Newton’s cut-off, isolated existence with only his prodigious intellect for company seems especially alien. That the approach was effective is most certainly not in doubt; every one of his scientific discoveries would alone be enough to place him in science’s hall of fame, and to have done all of them puts him head and shoulders above all of his compatriots. In many ways, Newton’s story is one of the price of success. Was Isaac Newton a successful man? Undoubtedly, in almost every field he turned his hand to. Was he a happy man? We don’t know, but it would appear not. Given the choice between success and happiness, where would you fall?