This Human Life

I find it fascinating (yes, a favourite word of mine) to consider ourselves and how we as humans have grown in knowledge and understanding since we have existed. But in relative terms, that isn’t very long at all. I remember being told that attempting to imagine the Universe as a whole is just a total and absolute impossibility for us to do. I tend to agree, as I saw an item on the Internet the other day where someone was asking how big the largest thing in the Universe is, as well as how small. The answer given was that the biggest thing in the universe which scientists have discovered so far is a supercluster of galaxies called the ‘Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall’ and the smallest thing in the universe is a particle called a ‘Quark’. In fact the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is considered to be so wide that light itself would take 10 billion years to move around the structure and the amazing thing is that our universe itself is just 13.8 billion years old. Whilst a quark is a type of elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter, as they are amongst the smallest particles in the universe and carry only fractional electric charges. Scientists have a good idea of how quarks make up things that are called hadrons, which in particle physics are composite, subatomic particles (such as protons or neutrons) made of two or more quarks held together by their strong interaction. They are rather like molecules which are held together by electric force. Except the properties of individual quarks have been difficult to ‘tease out’ because they cannot be observed outside of their respective hadrons! Whew – too much for me, I guess that’s one for someone doing a science degree. When I was at school, I wasn’t by any means brilliant but as I have said before I had what was called ‘an enquiring mind’. I still do. In the past couple of years I have had the great opportunity of chatting to medical students at the Leicester University Medical School and one day when I attended a session with them, outside one building I saw a sign which really made me chuckle. It is this one.

It’s not rocket science…

It just goes to show that there are many things which we never could imagine ourselves doing, yet years later we find that we have achieved. It is also, to me at least, of great importance that as we grow, we share. There are, sadly, many people in the world today who want to be great but at the expense as well as the detriment of others. Such people think nothing of taking things from others, whether it be money, knowledge or skills, but they will give absolutely nothing back of themselves. Or, if they see someone else doing well, then they attempt to take credit for the other person’s achievements. That, in my humble opinion, is very wrong. My father was an excellent teacher, he went on to be the deputy headmaster of an infant/junior school. My mother worked in a few different places, when she left school she was insistent on not working in a local factory in London as many of her schoolmates did, she wanted and did work in the offices of W.H. Smith, where she met my dad. When circumstances moved the family from London to Peterborough, mum looked after us children and later worked at a local solicitors, then the local town hall. They weren’t highly skilled jobs that she had but they were vital ones, nevertheless. Then, when retirement came along mum and dad had several years together travelling, they particularly liked Jersey and Guernsey. Having been there myself, I can understand why. Sadly my dad got cancer, as he smoked a fair bit just as so many people did in those days. It is all part of life and I think we should do our best to learn from each and every experience, the good and the not so good. To me it isn’t ‘bad’, it is just what it is. I have mentioned how me being left-handed meant that my writing is not good. But I found that by angling the paper or whatever that I was writing on to around forty-five degrees, I could see the words I was writing without smudging what I had written. At work I found others who also wrote left-handed, one man even wrote in such a way that it looked like he was writing backwards. But it most definitely worked for him. I have said previously about computers, how they were of benefit to me in all sorts of ways and still are. I was learning, learning all the time about new things, seeing others with new ideas and at times seeing how they could be adapted in new or simply different ways. It was and is to me all part of life, how things should be. But then I saw another question that had been posted onto the Internet, which was “What is the purpose of learning how the Universe works?”. This really caught my attention, it piqued my interest as I have always wanted and been encouraged to learn, to develop and understand new things. The following is a what my research has found.

This is part of what is called ‘disinterested inquiry.’ And the synonym for this is of course ‘science’. Learning is a virtue, and virtue is its own reward. That is its purpose. At one time, Astronomy was concerned purely with ‘where’ the stars were, and not ‘what’ they were. In the early 1900s, George Ellery Hale, Director of Mount Wilson Observatory in California, U.S.A., insisted on installing a physics laboratory in the facility and the publication from the observatory was titled ‘Astro-Physics’, but it was soon changed to ‘Astrophysics’. Albert Einstein formulated and published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916 and in 1929 Edmund Hubble discovered whilst he was at Mount Wilson that the Milky Way galaxy was not the whole universe, and that it was expanding, as Einstein’s General Relativity Theory predicted. As a matter of interest, the Mount Wilson Observatory really is an important astronomical facility in Southern California with historic 60-inch (1,524mm) and 100-inch (2,540mm) telescopes, and 60-foot (18.3m) and 150-foot (45.7m) solar towers. Located there is also the newer, Centre for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) array, an ‘optical interferometer’ and it is there that the technique of Interferometry is used, as this uses the interference of superimposed waves to extract information and typically uses electromagnetic waves. It is an important investigative technique in the fields of astronomy, fibre optics, engineering, metrology, oceanography, seismology and many other sciences too numerous to mention. It is even used in the making of holograms. The array consists of six, 1-metre (40-inch) telescopes operating as an astronomical interferometer. Construction was completed in 2003 and is owned and run by Georgia State University (GSU). It does important interferometric stellar research. The summit of Mount Wilson is at 5,710 feet (1,740m) and whilst not the tallest peak in its vicinity, it is high enough in elevation that snow can sometimes interrupt astronomical activities on the mountain. All of the mountains south of the summit are far shorter, leading to unobstructed views across the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County, San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. At such an elevation the horizon over the ocean extends 92 miles (148km). Mount Wilson is also heavily used for relay broadcasting of both radio and television for the Greater Los Angeles Area. But back to the history lesson. Some years ago now a plethora of physicists were figuring out atoms and quantum mechanics, considering what were the smallest things in the universe. Discoveries were made and when more is known, things happen. The Apollo Moon Project was pure applied astronomy, going to the Moon to obtain samples of rock. As a result of the need for navigation, the small compact computer, which could operate continuously in real time, was invented. You are reading this with that computer’s core development, but consider for a moment if you will the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which was the first to land men on the Moon. On board that spacecraft was a computer called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) which had a Random Access Memory (RAM) of just four kilobytes (4KB) with a 32KB hard disk. This meant that it had just 2,048 ‘words’ of memory which could be used to store temporary results, data that is lost when there is no power. Since then, the most obvious advances have been in computing and electronics, especially in reducing size. My very first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 which I purchased in 1981, it had just 1K of RAM and no hard disk. To use it, I had to tune one of the channels on my portable television and programs were either manually typed in each time or saved onto a cassette tape and then reloaded from that. I spent hours and hours copying programs from computer magazines, being careful to put in all the letters, numbers and other symbols just exactly as they were printed, only to find that the program wouldn’t run because of a typing error in the magazine which I (and many others!) only found out about in the following week’s edition of the magazine! But it passed the time and I learned a great deal about computer programming. Then Sir Clive Sinclair sold his business to Amstrad and bigger, better computers were made with larger memory, built-in storage and finally disk drives. But manufacturers realised the gap in the market and made ‘home’ computers, although they were poor compared to the ones we have nowadays. For a number of years I soldiered on with my Amstrad/Sinclair computer, but eventually I bought a more modern computer. Sadly none of the programs I had would work on that new one, although many years later some very clever folk found a way of making those old programs work by making ’simulators’ that made these old programs run properly!

By now mobile telephones were getting popular, they were getting smaller too. I bought what was an ‘electronic diary’, a separate, hand-held computer that worked very well. I was still working in a Sales office of British Telecom and the engineers were going around fitting, installing as well as repairing telephone equipment. Then a few years later I learned that these engineers had been issued with the very same electronic diaries as part of their work! I wish I had known… However, technology continued to move on and after a while I learned about a combined unit which had a diary, a calendar, email and a camera all built into one! Over the past few years I have upgraded that unit, I then moved over to using one made by Apple and am happy with it. But it is a very far cry from that first computer the astronauts used on Apollo 11. We have had bigger and better spacecraft, the space shuttle as well as craft launched out into deep space that take many years to even get as far as Jupiter or Saturn. But research is continuous and at the other end of the ‘size’ spectrum, research with giant synchrotrons at CERN in Europe goes on and they continually learn more about the basic building blocks of the universe. At one point CERN developed so much data that it was difficult to manage, so in 1988 an enterprising physicist there, Timothy Berners-Lee, asked his supervisor for $1,200 to develop what he called ‘a distributing information system’ which was up and running in 1989. Today we call that the Internet. The point of continuous research is that economists discovered in 1990 that the source of 80% of the wealth of nations comes from the support of science research, any science. Knowing how the universe works gives us an idea about what to actually expect from life, our existence and reality. Also, knowing what to expect lets you know how to plan and how to prepare, it lets you focus on what matters, and ignore or dismiss that which does not matter. Knowing helps us to grow as the more you know, the stronger you are when faced with claims and efforts to compel using false thoughts and ideas. To my mind, knowledge is not the opposite of ignorance as no-one can know it all, in fact we simply don’t know what we don’t know. But knowledge is certainly the path to getting there, as well as recognising when you have arrived. So the purpose of learning how the universe works is the joy of inquiry and the benefits are the wealth of nations. That is surely a good thing. The only other thing we should also remember though, in my view, is in our faith, no matter what our race, colour or creed may be.

This week… a personal tale.
I expect my dad told my mum this and it must have amused both of them, as you will see when you read on!

I was quite young when I began singing in our local church choir and on Sundays I would sit in the stalls with other choir members. I would listen to the vicar preach the sermon, but being young I didn’t always understand exactly what was being said. I did my best. At school I and others were taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic and at home we listened to the radio. One of my elder brothers had a small, battery-powered transistor radio and this fascinated me so I tried to learn all about these little radios along with the transistors that were in them. So it was a surprise to me one Sunday when our elderly vicar said what sounded to me like “The changes and chances of this transistory life”. Because I knew transistors had only recently been invented, there was something not quite right so I asked (as was my way) my dear dad, who quietly and kindly pointed out that what the vicar had actually said was “ The changes and chances of this transitory life” and it was nothing to do with transistors! Dad also got me to look up the word ‘transitory’ in the dictionary, learning as I did that it meant “not permanent; tending to pass away”. I learned…

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So a week ago, Friday the 13th came and went around the world. To many it would have been an ordinary day, whilst others may have almost feared it. I have heard about some folk not wanting to even get out of bed, for fear of something ‘bad’ happening to them. Many of us have our own ways, our own peculiarities, perhaps eccentricities, even foibles. Incidentally, the latter word can also mean the part of a sword blade from the middle to the point.

In fact a superstition is defined as any belief or practice considered to be irrational or supernatural, attributed to fate or magic, perceived supernatural influence or fear of that which is unknown. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, amulets, astrology, fortune-telling, spirits and certain paranormal entities, more particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific and apparently unrelated prior events. Equally the word ‘superstition’ is often used to refer to a religion not practiced by the majority of a given society, regardless of whether the prevailing religion contains alleged superstitions or not. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines superstition as ‘a religious belief or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural’, as well as ‘a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief’. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines superstition as ‘the belief that particular events happen in a way that cannot be explained by reason or science; the belief that particular events bring good or bad luck’. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, it is ‘a false conception about causation or belief or practice emanating from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance amounts to superstition’. Meanwhile, the Cambridge Dictionary denotes superstition as ‘a belief that is connected with old ideas about magic etc., without grounding in human reason or scientific knowledge’. The dictionary cites Cambridge English Corpus contextually in that the term ‘superstition’ might define controversial beliefs, the practice of confessional opponents or the beliefs of the ignorant masses as superstitious. Different authors have attempted to categorise different superstitions and one even gave time a category, noting the observances of various ones such as dog days, Egyptian days (which, in Europe during the Middle Ages, were certain days of the year held to be unlucky), year prognoses and lunar timings, also where signs might constitute significances like particular animal behaviours, such as the call of birds, neighing of horses or sighting of comets, as well as dreams. But identifying something as a ‘superstition’ is considered by many as somewhat pejorative or seen with contempt and these items are commonly referred to as folklore. Webster’s ‘The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions’ points out that whilst many superstitions are related with religion, people have been carrying individual subjective perceptions against one another and people of one belief are likely to call people of another belief superstitious. Constantine regarded paganism as a superstition, whilst on the other hand Tacitus regarded Christianity as pernicious superstition. Both Paul the Apostle and Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546) perceived any thing that was not centred on Christ to be superstitious. Whilst the formation of the Latin word ‘superstition’ is clear, from the verb ‘super-stare’, i.e. to stand over, stand upon, to survive, its original intended sense is less clear. It can be interpreted as ‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe’, but other possibilities have been suggested, for example the sense of excess, such as over-scrupulousness or over-ceremoniousness in the performing of religious rites, or else the survival of old, irrational religious habits. The earliest known use of the word as a noun is found in written works by Plautus, Ennius and later by Pliny, with the meaning of ‘art of divination’. From its use in the Classical Latin of Livy and Ovid it is used in the pejorative sense that it holds today in relation to an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to the proper and reasonable awe of the gods. However Cicero derived the term from ‘superstitiosi’, literally ‘those who are left over’, meaning survivors or descendants, connecting it to excessive anxiety of parents in hoping that their children would survive them to perform their necessary funerary rites.

Greek and Roman polytheists (those with the belief in multiple deities who are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses along with their own religious sects and rituals) modelled their relations with the gods on political and social terms and scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods was what the Romans considered to be the meaning of superstition. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church considers superstition sinful in the sense that it denotes ‘a perverse excess of religion’ as a demonstrated lack of trust in divine providence and in violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism is therefore a defence against the accusation that Catholic doctrine is superstitious. In 1948 a behavioural psychologist published an article in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, whilst others also displayed a variety of different behaviours. He believed these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, so the psychologist believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans. That was his considered opinion. But some people seem to believe that superstitions influence events by changing the likelihood of currently possible outcomes rather than by creating new possible outcomes. In sporting events, for example, a lucky ritual or object is thought to increase the chance that an athlete will perform at the peak of their ability, rather than increasing their overall ability at that sport. There are some people who tend to attribute events to supernatural causes most often under two circumstances. In the first instance they are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is unlikely than if it is likely. In other words, the more surprising the event, the more likely it is to evoke a supernatural explanation. This is believed to stem from an ‘affected’ motivation – a basic desire to exert control over one’s environment. When no natural cause can explain a situation, attributing an event to a superstitious cause may give people some sense of control and ability to predict what will happen in their environment. In the second, people are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is negative than positive. This is called ‘negative agency bias’, for example in American baseball, the Boston Red Sox fans attributed the failure of their team to win the world series for 86 years to the ‘curse of the bambino’, an alleged curse placed on the team for trading a professional baseball player named Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees so that the team owner could fund a Broadway musical. When the Red Sox finally won the world series in 2004 however, the team’s success was attributed to the team’s skill and the rebuilding effort of the new owner and general manager. As you might expect, people are more likely to perceive their computer to act according to its own intentions when it malfunctions than when it functions properly. However, according to various analysts who study consumer behaviour superstitions are employed as a heuristic tool and as a result these can influence a variety of consumer behaviours. These analysts say that, after taking into account a set of antecedents, trait superstitions are predictive of a wide variety of consumer beliefs, like beliefs in astrology or in common negative superstitions, for example the fear of black cats. Additionally, a general proneness to be superstitious may lead to an enduring temperament to gamble, to participate in promotional games, invest in stocks, to forward superstitious e‐mails, keep good‐luck charms and exhibit sports fan regalia. But superstition can also be found in politics, as the Ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote in his work “The Histories” where he used the word ‘superstition’, explaining that in Ancient Rome such beliefs maintained the cohesion of the Roman Empire, operating as it did as a means of controlling the masses, in particular to achieve both political and mundane ends.

Boston Red Sox.

In the Classical era, the existence of gods was actively debated amongst both philosophers and theologians and consequently opposition to superstition arose. The poem ‘De Rerum Natura’, written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius further developed the opposition to superstition. Cicero’s work ‘De Natura Deorum’ also had a great influence on the development of the modern concept of superstition as well as the word itself. Whereas Cicero distinguished ‘superstitio’ and ‘religio’, Lucretius used only the word ‘religio’. That is because for Cicero, ’superstitio’ meant excessive fear of the gods as he believed that only superstition, and not religion, should be abolished. In fact the Roman Empire also made laws condemning those who excited excessive religious fear in others. During the Middle Ages, the idea of God’s influence on the world’s events went mostly undisputed. Trials by ordeal were quite frequent, even though King Frederick II (1194 – 1250 AD) was the first king who explicitly outlawed trials by ordeal as they were considered to be irrational. The rediscovery of lost classical works and scientific advancement led to a steadily increasing disbelief in superstition and a new, more rationalistic view was beginning to be seen. In addition, opposition to superstition was central to the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, most superstitions arose over the course of many centuries and were rooted in regional and historical circumstances, such as religious beliefs or the natural environment. For instance geckos were at one time believed to be of medicinal value in many Asian countries, whilst in China (and in other countries now) the belief of Feng Shui is said to have a negative effect on different places, for example that a room in the northwest corner of a house may have very bad energy. Similarly, the number 8 is thought to be a lucky number in China, so that it is more common than any other number in the Chinese housing market. Equally there are certain phrases, in particular plays, which are considered to bring bad luck, for example it is said that a coven of witches objected to William Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on that well-known Scottish play. Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Prior to a performance, some actors will say “break a leg” in the hope that this will ward off any unlucky events. But there are some equally and quite reasonable actions which at first seem without much foundation. At one time, many children were forced to use their right hands for writing, mainly as a prejudice against the awkwardness of left-handed writing and the prevalence of ‘right-handed’ utensils. Happily, left-handedness is more accepted nowadays, which is all to the good for me personally! But many years ago when greeting someone, the task of shaking hands was done with the right hand because back then a great many swordsmen had their sword on the left side of their waist because they were right-handed, so it was easy for them to draw their sword. But by shaking hands with the right hand it showed openness and trust towards the person they were greeting, not hostility. It is fascinating how these actions have their historical connections, rather than simply thought of as superstition.

This week… an interesting tale.
The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term paper. The answer given by one student was considered so ‘profound’ that the professor shared it with colleagues via the Internet, which is of course why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well.

Bonus Question:
Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?
Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law (gas cools down when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

“First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell.

With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities:
1) If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.
2) If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over. So which is it?

If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year, “…that it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you”, and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having an affair with her, then #2 above cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze over.”

This student received the only “A”.

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The Gold Standard

As part of my research on gold for last week’s blog post, I saw an item on the Internet about how gold had only stopped being used as a Gold Standard in recent years, so I decided to do just a bit of research. This was because what the writer of the article had said simply didn’t seem right to me. I learned that at the time of London’s first Olympics in 1908, the amount of money in circulation in the UK was tied to the amount of gold in the economy. The gold standard had prevailed for most of the previous two centuries and was to continue until World War I began in 1914. But the UK was not the only country whose monetary system was based on gold. From 1880 to 1914, almost all of the world’s leading economies had followed suit, with each country fixing the price of gold in their local currency. In the UK, the price of one troy ounce of gold was £4 5s 0d (£4.25). In the US it was fixed at $20.67. This implied a fixed exchange rate between pound sterling and the dollar ($4.87 per £1) with all the other countries on the gold standard. To enhance the credibility of the arrangements, authorities guaranteed that paper money was fully convertible into gold and anyone could request to convert their pounds into the equivalent value of gold. This was because it limited the ability of governments to print money and the gold standard stopped countries from deliberately devaluing their own currency in order to improve the competitiveness of their exports or pay off their debts. As a result, membership of the gold standard was seen as a commitment to sound government finance. By constraining the growth in money supply, the gold standard was also believed to contribute to stable prices. Over long periods this was generally the case, as price levels in the UK were much the same in 1914 as they were in 1880. However, the gold standard’s inflexibility had major disadvantages. Changes in the world’s money supply were dependent not on economic conditions, but on the amount of new gold that was mined. This meant that on the one hand, monetary policy could not be used to respond to recessions and booms but on the other, significant rises in gold production would lead to faster money supply growth and ultimately inflation, regardless of a country’s underlying economic conditions. World War I saw the end of the gold standard as governments suspended the convertibility of their currencies into gold in order to freely finance rapidly escalating military expenditure. It was briefly reintroduced in some countries after the War, including the UK from 1925 to 1931, but fell apart again during the Great Depression. After World War II, a form of gold standard under the Bretton Woods system which involved the dollar being fixed to gold and then other currencies being fixed to the dollar was in operation until 1971. So technically, a ‘gold standard’ is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. This was the basis for the international monetary system from the 1870s to the early 1920s, and from the late 1920s to 1932, as well as from 1944 until 1971 when the United States unilaterally terminated converting the US dollar to gold foreign central banks, effectively ending the Bretton Woods system, though many states still hold substantial gold reserves. In fact it seems that historically, the silver standard and bimetallism have been more common than the gold standard and the shift to an international monetary system based on a gold standard reflected accident, network externalities and ‘path dependence’ (a concept in economics and the social sciences, referring to processes where past events or decisions constrain later events or decisions) occurred. Great Britain accidentally adopted a ‘de facto’ gold standard in 1717 when Sir Isaac Newton, who was then master of the Royal Mint, set the exchange rate of silver to gold far too low, thus causing silver coins to go out of circulation. As Great Britain became the world’s leading financial and commercial power in the 19th century, other states increasingly adopted Britain’s monetary system. The gold standard was largely abandoned during the Great Depression before being reinstated in a limited form as part of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system. The gold standard was abandoned due to its propensity for volatility, as well as the constraints it imposed on governments, as by retaining a fixed exchange rate, governments were hamstrung in engaging in expansionary policies to, for example, reduce unemployment during economic recessions. There is a consensus among economists that a return to the gold standard would not be beneficial and most economic historians reject the idea that the gold standard ‘was effective in stabilising prices and moderating business-cycle fluctuations during the nineteenth century.’ So it was that we slipped into a ‘gold specie standard’ in 1717 by over-valuing gold at 15.2 times its weight in silver, ‘specie’ meaning money in the form of coins rather than notes. It was unique among nations to use gold in conjunction with clipped, underweight silver shillings, addressed only before the end of the 18th century by the acceptance of gold proxies like token silver coins and banknotes. From the more widespread acceptance of paper money in the 19th century emerged the gold bullion standard, a system where gold coins do not circulate, but authorities like central banks agree to exchange circulating currency for gold bullion at a fixed price. First emerging in the late 18th century to regulate exchange between London and Edinburgh, it was noted how such a standard became the predominant means of implementing the gold standard internationally in the 1870s. Restricting the free circulation of gold under the Classical Gold Standard period from the 1870s to 1914 was also needed in countries which decided implement the gold standard while guaranteeing the exchangeability of huge amounts of legacy silver coins into gold at the fixed rate (rather than valuing publicly-held silver at its depreciated value).

Here in the United Kingdom the English pound sterling, introduced around the year 800 CE, was initially a silver standard unit worth 20 shillings or 240 silver pennies. The latter initially contained 1.35 g fine silver, reducing by 1601 to 0.464 g, hence giving way to the shilling (12 pennies) of 5.57 g fine silver. The problem of clipped, underweight silver pennies and shillings was a persistent, unresolved issue from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. In 1717 the value of the gold guinea (of 7.6885 g fine gold) was fixed at 21 shillings, resulting in a gold-silver ratio of 15.2 higher than prevailing ratios in Continental Europe. Great Britain was therefore ‘de jure’ under a bimetallic standard with gold serving as the cheaper and more reliable currency compared to clipped silver and full-weight silver coins did not circulate but went to Europe where 21 shillings fetched over a guinea in gold. Several factors helped extend the British gold standard into the 19th century, namely the Brazilian Gold Rush of the 18th century supplying significant quantities of gold to Portugal and Britain, with Portuguese gold coins also legal tender in Britain. Also ongoing trade deficits with China (which sold to Europe but had little use for European goods) drained silver from the economies of most of Europe. Combined with greater confidence in banknotes issued by the Bank of England, it opened the way for gold as well as banknotes becoming acceptable currency in lieu of silver. In addition was the acceptability of token or subsidiary silver coins as substitutes for gold before the end of the 18th century. Initially issued by the Bank of England and other private companies, permanent issuance of subsidiary coinage from the Royal Mint commenced after the Great Recoinage of 1816.

The British gold sovereign or £1 coin was the pre-eminent circulating gold coin during the classical gold standard period.

Following the Napoleonic Wars, Britain legally moved from the bimetallic to the gold standard in the 19th century in several steps, when the 21-shilling guinea was discontinued in favour of the 20-shilling gold sovereign or £1 coin. From the second half of the 19th century Britain then introduced its gold standard to Australia, New Zealand, and the British West Indies in the form of circulating gold sovereigns as well as banknotes that were convertible at par into sovereigns or Bank of England banknotes. The classical gold standard of the late 19th century was not merely a superficial switch from circulating silver to circulating gold. The bulk of silver currency was actually replaced by banknotes and token currency whose gold value was guaranteed by gold bullion and other reserve assets held inside central banks. In turn, the gold exchange standard was just one step away from modern flat currency, with banknotes issued by central banks and whose value is secured by the bank’s reserve assets, but whose exchange value is determined by the monetary policy of the central bank and its objectives on purchasing power in lieu of a fixed equivalence to gold. The final chapter of the classical gold standard ending in 1914 saw the gold exchange standard extended to many Asian countries by fixing the value of local currencies to gold or to the gold standard currency of a Western colonial power. The Netherlands East Indies guilder was the first Asian currency pegged to gold in 1875 via a gold exchange standard which maintained its parity with the gold Dutch guilder. International monetary conferences were called up before 1890, with various countries actually pledging to maintain the ‘limping’ standard of freely circulating legacy silver coins in order to prevent the further deterioration of the gold–silver ratio which reached 20 in the 1880s. However, after 1890 the decline in the price of silver could not be prevented further and the gold–silver ratio rose sharply above 30. In 1893 the Indian rupee of 10.69 g fine silver was fixed at 16 British pence (or £1 = 15 rupees; gold-silver ratio 21.9), with legacy silver rupees remaining legal tender. Nearly similar gold standards were implemented in Japan in 1897, in the Philippines in 1903 and in Mexico in 1905 when the previous yen or peso of 24.26 g silver was redefined to approximately 0.75 g gold or half a United States dollar (ratio 32.3). Japan gained the needed gold reserves after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. For Japan, moving to gold was considered vital for gaining access to Western capital markets. Governments with insufficient tax revenue suspended convertibility repeatedly in the 19th century., however the real test came with the onset of World War I. The gold specie standard came to an end in the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire with the outbreak of that war. A run on sterling caused Britain to impose exchange controls that fatally weakened the standard, convertibility was not legally suspended but gold prices no longer played the role that they did before. In financing the war as well as abandoning gold, many of the contributors suffered drastic inflations. Price levels doubled in the United States and Britain, tripled in France and quadrupled in Italy. Exchange rates changed less, even though European inflation rates were more severe than America and this meant that the cost of American goods decreased relative to those in Europe. Between August 1914 and spring of 1915, the dollar value of U.S. exports tripled and its trade surplus exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Ultimately, the system could not deal quickly enough with the large deficits and surpluses. This was previously attributed to downward wage rigidity brought about by the advent of unionised labour, but is now considered as an inherent fault of the system that arose under the pressures of war and rapid technological change. In any event, prices had not reached equilibrium by the time of the Great Depression which served to kill off the system completely.

The gold specie standard ended in the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire at the outbreak of World War I, when Treasury notes replaced the circulation of gold sovereigns and gold half sovereigns. Except legally, the gold specie standard was not abolished. The end of the gold standard was successfully effected by the Bank of England through appeals to patriotism urging citizens not to redeem paper money for gold specie. It was only in 1925, when Britain returned to the gold standard in conjunction with Australia and South Africa, that the gold specie standard was officially ended. The British Gold Standard Act 1925 both introduced the gold bullion standard and simultaneously repealed the gold specie standard and the new standard ended the circulation of gold specie coins. Instead, the law compelled the authorities to sell gold bullion on demand at a fixed price, but ‘only in the form of bars containing approximately four hundred troy ounces (12kg) of fine gold’. The pound left the gold standard in 1931 and a number of currencies of countries that historically had performed a large amount of their trade in sterling were pegged to sterling instead of to gold. The Bank of England took the decision to leave the gold standard abruptly and unilaterally. Many other countries followed Britain in returning to the gold standard, leading to a period of relative stability but also deflation. This state of affairs lasted until the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939 and forced countries off the gold standard. In the summer of 1931, a Central European banking crisis led Germany and Austria to suspend gold convertibility and impose exchange controls as a run on Austria’s largest commercial bank had caused it to fail. The run spread to Germany, where the central bank also collapsed. International financial assistance was too late and in July 1931 Germany adopted exchange controls, followed by Austria in October. The Austrian and German experiences, as well as British budgetary and political difficulties, were among the factors that destroyed confidence in sterling, which occurred in mid-July 1931. Runs ensued and the Bank of England lost much of its reserves. On September 19, 1931, speculative attacks on the pound led the Bank of England to abandon the gold standard, ‘ostensibly temporarily’. However, the ostensibly temporary departure from the gold standard had unexpectedly positive effects on the economy, leading to greater acceptance of departing from the gold standard. Loans from American and French central banks of £50 million were insufficient and exhausted in a matter of weeks, due to large gold outflows across the Atlantic. The British benefited from this departure. They could now use monetary policy to stimulate the economy. Australia and New Zealand had already left the standard and Canada quickly followed suit. The interwar partially-backed gold standard was inherently unstable because of the conflict between the expansion of liabilities to foreign central banks and the resulting deterioration in the Bank of England’s reserve ratio. France was then attempting to make Paris a world class financial centre, and it received large gold flows as well. Upon taking office in March 1933, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from the gold standard and by the end of 1932, it had been abandoned as a global monetary system. Finally Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland abandoned the gold standard in the mid-1930s. So it was ended many years ago. Much has been written subsequently about the gold standard, but one economist seems to have summed it up by saying “We don’t have the gold standard. It’s not because we don’t know about the gold standard, it’s because we do.”

This week…

Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and
Let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love;
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
But let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone
Though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together.
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

~ Khalil Gibran (06 January 1883 – 10 April 1931)

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This substance is a chemical element with the symbol “Au”, from the Latin ‘aurum’. It is a bright, slightly orange-yellow, dense, soft, malleable and ductile metal in a pure form. It is also one of the least reactive chemical elements and is solid under standard conditions. Gold often occurs in its elemental or native form as nuggets or grains in rocks, veins and alluvial deposits. It occurs in a solid solution series with the native element silver (as electrum), naturally alloyed with other metals like copper and palladium and mineral inclusions such as within pyrite. It occurs less commonly in minerals as gold compounds, often with tellurium (gold tellurides). Gold is resistant to most acids, though it does dissolve in aqua regia, a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, forming a soluble, but it is insoluble in nitric acid, which dissolves silver and base metals, a property long used to refine gold and confirm the presence of gold in metallic substances, giving rise to the term ‘acid test’. Gold dissolves in alkaline solutions of cyanide, which are used in mining and electroplating. It dissolves in mercury forming amalgam alloys, and as the gold acts simply as a solute, this is not a chemical reaction. A relatively rare element, gold is classed as a precious metal that has been used for coinage, jewellery and other arts throughout recorded history. In the past, a gold standard was often implemented as a monetary policy but gold coins ceased to be minted as a circulating currency in the 1930s, and the world gold standard was abandoned for a flat currency system after 1971. In 2017 the world’s largest gold producer by far was China, with 440 tonnes per year and as of 2020, a total of around 201,296 tonnes of gold exists above ground. This is equal to a cube with each side measuring roughly 21.7 metres (71ft). The world consumption of new gold produced is about 50% in jewellery, 40% in investments and 10% in industry. The high malleability, ductility, resistance to corrosion and most other chemical reactions and conductivity of electricity of gold has led to its continued use in corrosion-resistant electrical connectors in all types of computerised devices, its chief industrial use. It is also used in infra-red shielding, coloured glass production, gold-leafing and tooth restoration. Certain gold salts are still used as anti-inflammatories in medicine. A gold nugget of 5mm (0.20in) in size can be hammered into a gold foil of about 0.5 square metres, 5.4 square feet in area. Gold can be drawn into a wire of single-atom width, and then stretched considerably before it breaks. Such nanowires distort via formation, reorientation and migration of dislocations and crystal twins without noticeable hardening. Gold leaf can be beaten thin enough to become semi-transparent and the transmitted light appears greenish blue, because gold strongly reflects yellow and red. Such semi-transparent sheets also strongly reflect infra-red light, making them useful as infrared (radiant heat) shields in visors of heat-resistant suits, and in sun-visors. Whilst most metals are grey or silvery white, gold is slightly reddish-yellow, the colour determined by the frequency of plasma oscillations among the metal’s valence electrons, in the ultraviolet range for most metals but in the visible range for gold due to relativistic effects affecting the orbitals around gold atoms. Similar effects impart a golden hue to metallic caesium. Common coloured gold alloys include the distinctive eighteen-carat rose gold, which is created by the addition of copper. Also alloys containing palladium or nickel are important in commercial jewellery as these produce white gold alloys. Fourteen-carat gold-copper alloy is nearly identical in colour to certain bronze alloys, and both may be used to produce police and other badges. Fourteen and eighteen-carat gold alloys with silver alone appear greenish-yellow and are referred to as green gold, whilst blue gold can be made by alloying it with iron and purple gold can be made by alloying with aluminium. Although less common, the addition of manganese, indium and other elements can produce more unusual gold colours for various applications. The possible production of gold from a more common element such as lead has long been a subject of human enquiry, and the ancient and medieval discipline of alchemy often focussed on it. However, the transmutation of the chemical elements did not become possible until the understanding of nuclear physics in the 20th century. It can be manufactured in a nuclear reactor, but doing so is highly impractical and would cost far more than the value of the gold that is produced. Medicinal applications of gold and its complexes have a long history dating back thousands of years and several gold complexes have been applied to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Also some of its compounds have been investigated as possible anti-cancer drugs.

Gold is thought to have been produced in supernova nucleosynthesis and from the collision of neutron stars, therefore being present in the dust from which the Solar System was formed. Because the Earth was molten when it was formed, almost all of the gold present in the early Earth probably sank into the planetary core. Therefore, most of the gold that is in the Earth’s crust and mantle has, according to one theory, thought to have been delivered to Earth later by asteroid impacts about 4 billion years ago. The gold which is reachable by humans has therefore been associated with a particular asteroid impact and the asteroid that formed the Vredefort crater around two billion years ago is often credited with seeding the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa with the richest gold deposits on earth. However, this scenario is now questioned, as these gold-bearing rocks were laid down between 700 and 950 million years before the Vredefort impact. These gold-bearing rocks had also been covered by a thick layer of Ventersdorp lavas and the Transvaal Supergroup of rocks before the meteor struck, and thus the gold did not actually arrive in the asteroid/meteorite. What the Vredefort impact achieved, however, was to distort the Witwatersrand basin in such a way that the gold-bearing rocks were brought to the present erosion surface in Johannesburg, just inside the rim of the original 300km (190 mile) diameter crater caused by the meteor strike. It was the discovery of the deposit in 1886 that launched the Witwatersrand Gold Rush. Some 22% of all the gold that is ascertained to exist today on Earth has been extracted from these rocks. However, besides that much of the rest of the gold on Earth is thought to have been incorporated into the planet since its very beginning, as planetesimals formed the planet’s mantle early in Earth’s creation. In 2017 an international group of scientists established that gold ‘came to the Earth’s surface from the deepest regions of our planet’, the mantle, and this is said to have been evidenced by their findings at the Deseado Massif in the Argentinian region of Patagonia. Perhaps surprisingly, the world’s oceans also contain gold and measured concentrations estimate that they would hold 15,000 tonnes. A number of people have claimed to be able to economically recover gold from sea water, but they were either mistaken or acted in an intentional deception. There was one man who ran a gold-from-seawater swindle in the United States in the 1890s, as did an English fraudster in the early 1900s. Another man did research on the extraction of gold from sea water in an effort to help pay Germany’s reparations following World War I and based on the published values of gold in seawater a commercially successful extraction seemed possible. But after analysis of 4,000 water samples, it became clear that extraction would not be possible and he ended the project.

Grave offerings on exposition in the Varna museum, Bulgaria, thought to be the oldest golden artefacts in the world (4600 BC – 4200 BC).

The earliest recorded metal employed by humans appears to be gold. Small amounts of natural gold have been found in Spanish caves used during the late Palaeolithic period, c. 40,000 BC. The oldest gold artefacts in the world are from Bulgaria and date back to around 4,600 BC to 4,200 BC, such as those found in the Varna Necropolis near Lake Varna and the Black Sea coast, thought to be the earliest ‘well-dated’ finding of gold artefacts in history. Such items probably made their first appearance in Ancient Egypt at the very beginning of the pre-dynastic period, at the end of the fifth millennium BC and the start of the fourth, and smelting was developed during the course of the 4th millennium. The oldest known map of a gold mine was drawn in the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (1320–1200 BC), and the first written reference to gold was recorded in the 12th Dynasty around 1900 BC. Egyptian hieroglyphs from as early as 2600 BC describe gold and one of the earliest known maps, known as the Turin Papyrus Map, shows the plan of a gold mine in Nubia together with indications of the local geology. Large mines were also present across the Red Sea in what is now Saudi Arabia. Gold is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament of the Bible, starting with Genesis. In the New Testament it is included with the gifts of the Magi in the first chapters of Matthew. The book of Revelation describes the city of New Jerusalem as having streets ‘made of pure gold, clear as crystal’. Exploitation of gold in the south-east corner of the Black Sea is said to date from the time of King Midas and this gold was important in the establishment of what is probably the world’s earliest coinage in Lydia, around 610 BC. The legend of the Golden Fleece, dating from eighth century BCE may refer to the use of fleeces to trap gold dust from deposits in the ancient world. In Roman metallurgy, new methods for extracting gold on a large scale were developed from 25 BC onwards. The European exploration of the Americas was fuelled in no small part by reports of the gold ornaments displayed in great profusion by Native American peoples. The Aztecs regarded gold as the product of the gods, calling it literally ‘god excrement’ but after Moctezuma II was killed, much of this gold was shipped to Spain. However, for the indigenous peoples of North America gold was considered useless and they saw much greater value in other minerals which were directly related to their use, such as obsidian, flint and slate. Gold has played a role in western culture as a cause for desire and of corruption, for example in children’s fables where Rumpelstiltskin turns hay into gold for the peasant’s daughter in return for her child when she becomes a princess, and the stealing of the hen that lays golden eggs in Jack and the Beanstalk. The top prize at the Olympic Games and many other sports competitions is the gold medal. The main goal of alchemists has been to produce gold from other substances such as lead, perhaps by the interaction with a mythical substance called the philosopher’s stone. Trying to produce gold led the alchemists to systematically find out what can be done with substances and this laid the foundation for today’s chemistry.

Minoan jewellery from 2300–2100 BC in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Apart from chemistry, gold is mentioned in a variety of expressions, most often associated with intrinsic worth. As already mentioned, great achievements are frequently rewarded with gold in the form of medals as well as trophies and other decorations. Winners of athletic events and other graded competitions are usually awarded a gold medal. Many awards such as the Nobel Prize are made from gold. Other award statues and prizes are depicted in gold or are gold-plated, such as the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the Emmy awards and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) .Gold is associated with the wisdom of ageing and fruition, hence the fiftieth wedding anniversary is golden. A person’s most valued or most successful latter years are sometimes considered their ‘golden years’ and the height of a civilisation is referred to as a golden age. In some religions gold has been associated both with holiness and evil, for example in the Bible’s Book of Exodus the Golden Calf is a symbol of idolatry, whilst in the Book of Genesis Abraham was said to be rich in gold and silver, also Moses was instructed to cover the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant with pure gold. In Islam gold, along with silk, is often cited as being forbidden for men to wear. Wedding rings are typically made of gold as it is long lasting and unaffected by the passage of time and may aid in the ring symbolism of eternal vows before God and the perfection the marriage signifies. In August 2020, Israeli archaeologists discovered a trove of early Islamic gold coins near the central city of Yavneh, Israel and analysis of the extremely rare collection of 425 gold coins indicated that they were from the late 9th century.

Golden coins from the Scandinavian Monetary Union. To the left is Swedish and the right is Danish.

Gold has been widely used throughout the world as money, for efficient indirect exchange as opposed to bartering and to store wealth in hoards. For exchange purposes, mints produce standardised gold bullion coins, bars and other units of fixed weight and purity. The first known coins containing gold were struck in Lydia, Asia Minor, around 600 BC. The talent coin of gold in use during the periods of Grecian history both before and during the time of the life of Homer weighed between 8.42 and 8.75 grams. From an earlier preference in using silver, European economies re-established the minting of gold as coinage during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In preparation for World War I the warring nations moved to fractional gold standards, inflating their currencies to finance the war effort. Post-war, the victorious countries, most notably Britain, gradually restored gold-convertibility, but international flows of gold via bills of exchange remained embargoed and international shipments were made exclusively for bilateral trades or to pay war reparations. After World War II, gold was replaced by a system of nominally convertible currencies related by fixed exchange rates following the Bretton Woods system of monetary management, which established the rules for commercial and financial relations among the countries of the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and Western European countries after the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement. This system was the first example of a fully negotiated monetary order intended to govern monetary relations among independent states. It required countries to guarantee convertibility of their currencies into U.S. dollars to within 1% of fixed parity rates, with the dollar convertible to gold bullion for foreign governments and central banks at 35 US dollars per troy ounce of fine gold, or 0.88867 gram fine gold per dollar. It also envisioned greater cooperation among countries in order to prevent future competitive devaluations and thus established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to monitor exchange rates and lend reserve currencies to nations with balance of payments deficits. I must admit to smiling when I first came across the name ‘Bretton Woods system’, as I was brought up in Peterborough and a township of that fine city is named Bretton, where you will find the Bretton Woods Community School! But I am certain they played no part in establishing this monetary system. But back to the story. Gold standards and direct convertibility of currencies to gold have been abandoned by world governments, led in 1971 by the United States’ refusal to redeem its dollars in gold. Flat currency now fills most monetary roles. Switzerland was the last country to tie its currency to gold, it backed 40% of its value until the Swiss joined the IMF in 1999. Central banks continue to keep a portion of their liquid reserves as gold in some form, and metals exchanges such as the London Bullion Market Association still clear transactions denominated in gold, including future delivery contracts. Today, gold mining output is declining, so with the sharp growth of economies in the 20th century along with increasing foreign exchange, the world’s gold reserves and their trading market have become a small fraction of all markets, and fixed exchange rates of currencies to gold have been replaced by floating prices for gold. Though the gold stock grows by only 1 or 2% per year, very little metal is irretrievably consumed. Inventory above ground would satisfy many decades of industrial and even artisan uses at current prices. The gold proportion or fineness of alloys is measured by carat, with pure gold (commercially termed ‘fine’ gold) designated as 24 carat. English gold coins intended for circulation from 1526 into the 1930s was typically a standard 22-carat alloy called crown gold for hardness, whilst American gold coins for circulation after 1837 contain an alloy of 0.900 fine gold, or 21.6 carat. Only 10% of the world consumption of new gold produced goes to industry, but by far the most important industrial use for new gold is in fabrication of corrosion-free electrical connectors in computers and other electrical devices. Gold is a valuable commodity.

A mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope, coated in gold to reflect infrared light.

This week…
You might already know that the collective noun for crows is a murder and for lapwings it is a deceit. You might even be aware that for hawks it is an aerie. But an ambush is the collective term for both tigers and widows!

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