National Geographic : 1974 Jan
first spread beyond the financial pages, and neighbors started saying we don't understand it, what's all the fuss about, what's gold got to do with the dollar and Middle East oil.... Now I've seen how much ingenuity and sweat go into the produc ing of gold, and what it means to diverse people-to European bankers, say, or to a housewife in Calcutta, or to an African king and how deeply ingrained it is in the human psyche. After all, who ever heard of a silvery opportunity, or a heart of platinum? How to begin? Even before starting out I could see that this stuff my encyclopedia defines as "a dense, valuable, bright yellow, and lustrous metallic chemical element" is a many-faceted thing; just look at what's done with it close to home. Gold can be spread exceedingly thin, so thin that light will pass through. It also most efficiently reflects a large portion of the scorch ing infrared rays of the sun. And so it's great as a coating for office windows. People can see out, but relatively little heat will come in. This reduces the power needed for air conditioning and conserves energy. For the same reasons there's gold on the plastic visors of the airtight space helmets that astronauts wear. Otherwise their heads would get exceedingly hot. Gold can be processed to be soluble in oil, and when such a mix ture is applied to glass, and the glass is heated so that the oil burns off, what's left is a film of pure gold only five millionths of an inch thick. That's how golden butterflies and mushrooms get on tumblers, and golden words of promise on perfume bottles and jars of hand cream. The cost per item might be only a couple of cents. Gold Abounds in the Nation's Schools Because gold is so malleable and such a fine conductor of elec tricity, and because it won't corrode, a lot of it goes into tiny but dependable circuitry for pocket calculators, TV sets, and computers. A good deal of gold also disappears into people's mouths, to restore or replace teeth. It'll wear like a natural tooth. But the biggest use in the United States, by far, is in jewelry. And guess what sort absorbs a most massive share? Class rings-every year more than two and a half million of them. Very interesting, these customary uses of gold. But that this stuff should move men so deeply.... That dawned on me in South America, at the Gold Museum in the Colombian capital of Bogota. Visitors enter darkness that gradually lights up into a dazzle of thousands of gold objects-breastplates, tweezers, nose ornaments, fishhooks-from Indian cultures that flourished before the Spaniards came. Quimbaya, Muisca, Sinu... A French family ogles a little golden raft with ten small figures and one big one. Extraordinaire!Fabuleux! It's a chief smeared with gold dust in ancient ritual. Possibly El Dorado, the Gilded One, says a museum official. "The Spaniards sought gold and spices, but when they saw Food for an appetite that knows no limit, gold destined to be smuggled into India fills the hand of a boatman on the Arabian Gulf. Cast in Switzerland, shipped from a Middle East sheikdom, and weight-stamped for use in India, the nearly four-ounce bars symbolize mankind's fascination with and ceaseless yearning for the lustrous yellow metal.