Gold in 'them thar twinkles'

18 Oct 2017

The BBC news teams were full of it on Monday (the 16th October) and on Five Live on Tuesday morning they got excited all over again. Newspapers were also in on the hype but the story in the Mail was buried a few pages back from Front Page in your face position. What got their knickers in a twist? Gold. Yes, the very mention of shed loads of gold appears to have got the media luvvies hyper ventillating at a crazy angle. As one newspaper reported, 'scientists yesterday discovered a vast supply of gold - on the far side of the universe.' Funny, all that glitters catches so much attention. I suppose that is human nature, reminiscent of the old gold rush days of the 19th century. Gold still has lots of allure.

The gold in the story comes about as a result of a collision between two ultra-dense neutron stars - or that is the theory that has captured the grubby maul of the media. According to Donald Scott in his book, 'The Electric Sky' neutron stars are impossible - as it flies in the face of nuclear chemistry. Astro-physicists should know that. Is Scott right?

The story line informed us that 130 million years ago there was an explosion following a collision between two neutron stars in the Hydra constellation. This is so far away that the light and ripples in space and time have only just reached instruments and sensors on Earth. The gold created by the blast is estimated to weigh more than the whole of Earth's mass. Huge quantities of platinum, uranium, and other heavy elements such as lead were also created in the collision, we are told. The first gravitational wave signal from the collision are a key that has allowed scientists to unlock the door to some long standing mysteries. We now believe the collision of neutron stars could be a gold factory - but note 'we now believe' = hypothesis - and hypothesis are often debunked (but you would not know that in the media hullabaloo). The gravitational wave caused by the Hydra collision fanned out across the universe at the speed of light and it was picked up by sensors in Washington and Louisiana (by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory). Two seconds later a burst of gamma rays was captured by NASAs Fermi Space Telescope. A third facility near Pisa in Italy also registered a 'faint signal allowing scientists to triangulate the location. See for example ... where we are told, 'this is extremely exciting science' by a NASA director of its Astrophysics division. For the first time we have seen light and gravitational waves produced by the same event. Neutron stars are the enriched leftovers of massive stars that exploded as supernovas long ago. The two merging neutron stars likely had mass 10 to 60 per cent greater than our Sun but they were smaller in size than the city of WashingtonDC. The two cores, it is claimed, orbited around each other hundreds of times a second, producing gravitational waves at the same frequency. As they drew closer and orbited faster the stress eventually broke them up and they went on to merge into a singe object producing in the process a gamma ray burst and a flare-up dubbed a kilo-nova (a super douper supernova). Another NASA spokesperson claimed this is the one we've been waiting for as neutron stars produce a wide variety of light because a maelstrom of hot debris was created when they collided. Merging black holes were previously associated with a collision event that produced gravitational waves, as claimed by European scientists in 2015, consuming matter around them before the actual crash and merge. The idea of two neutron stars colliding out-performs the Europeans it would seem - or are they making it up as they go. A spokesperson for the Fermi team said the theory is that short gamma ray bursts are caused by a jet of debris moving at the speed of light from a collision between two neutron stars. This is what we have seen (on Monday) but gravitational waves are also caused by a black hole colliding with a neutron star, or a black hole merging with another black hole. See for example ... neutron star smash-up transforms our understanding of the universe while at ... What are neutron stars? We are told they are the collapsed and burnt out cores of dead stars.

At ... Gravitational Waves. Why the fuss? and at ... Neutron star crash: the gift that will keep on giving. In this press release we have the moneybags theme. For example we are told that the gold in your wedding ring 'probably' came from a neutron star merger in our part of the galaxy - 5 billion years ago (just prior to the formation of our solar system - or at least, the formation of Earth). Note the word probably = another hypothesis (and unprovable). This is guesswork and extrapolation of guesswork. We are also told another mystery has been solved -neutron star smash-ups are now 'known' to be 'one' source for the bright flashes of high energy radiation known as short gamma ray bursts (which implies there are other theories on how gammas ray bursts are produced).

At ... gold origin confirmed with first ever gravitational wave sighting from colliding neutron stars. Apparently, the smash-up led to huge amounts of gold, platinum, uranium and other heavy elements being created and then pumped out into the universe. I'm not sure if they are fully conversant with geology on this. Need to check it out but I can distinctly remember being told by a former gold miner that the Rand deposit (just outside Johannesburg in South Africa) is circular in shape and the gold follows the outline of an asteroid impact in the remote past. Did it require a neutron star collision? I would not have thought so. Look out for sceptical comments by geologists is the coming weeks. Astrophysics is one thing, largely theoretical, but geology has its feet on the ground (and what is under the surface). Academic geology may be theoretical too but mining geology is established on facts.