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How Gold Works

RELEASED February 1, 2013
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Episode Summary
Only 161,00 metric tons of gold has been mined in the entire history of the world. Considering about 85 percent of the precious mineral is recycled, there’s a chance your jewelry may once have been part of an Incan headdress or Mycenaean face mask. Learn the ins and outs of this metal that humans have killed over for millennia.

Male Speaker:    Brought to you by the 2012 Toyota Camry.  It’s ready.  Are you?

Female Speaker:    Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark:    Hey and welcome to the podcast.  I’m Josh Clark.  There’s Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant.  We’re doing this again.  It’s been a little while.

Chuck Bryant:    Been a little while.

Josh Clark:    But it’s still stuff you should know.

Chuck Bryant:    I thought the name had changed since we took our little Christmas break.

Josh Clark:    Don’t you remember our race to the patent office to trademark it again?

Chuck Bryant:    Right.

Josh Clark:    At the 11th hour.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, that was a close one.  Boom and they stamped it.  SYSK, actually they said SNSK.  No, wait.  SYSN is what we get from people a lot sometimes.  I’m like, “You know, know starts with a k, people?”

Josh Clark:    One of them does.

Chuck Bryant:    One of, yes.  It’s not stuff you should no, as in no.

Josh Clark:    Right, because it doesn’t make any sense.  How you doing?

Chuck Bryant:    I’m great, man.

Josh Clark:    Are you?

Chuck Bryant:    Uh-hum.

Josh Clark:    Okay, good.  You wanna do this one?  We’re talking about gold.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, man.

Josh Clark:    I’ve got a little bit of an intro.  It might be a stretch.  We’ll find out, okay?
Chuck Bryant:    Let’s hear.

Josh Clark:    Today’s January 15th.  Tomorrow’s January 16th.

Chuck Bryant:    Fig Newton Day.

Josh Clark:    It is Fig Newton Day.  Also, on this day in history in 378, the Mayan general Fire’s born conquered the Mayan city Tikal, which was recently rediscovered.  Not recently, it’s been rediscovered.  They rediscovered a new one.  What this did was it enlarged the kingdom of King Spearthrower Owl.  The Mayas had the best names ever.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s a pretty great name.

Josh Clark:    All of this was going on in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula.  If you went just a little to the north, you would run into another group of people called the Aztecs, which were actually the triple federation is what they’re really called.  If you were to stumble northward and run into the Aztec empire and ask for gold, what they would give you is what they would call excrement of the gods.  Do you wanna try to pronounce it?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, I’m gonna go with teocuitlatl.

Josh Clark:    I think that’s pretty close.  I think you may have done it, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant:    Teocuitlatl.  Teocuitlatl.

Josh Clark:    I think the last part is latl.

Chuck Bryant:    I love their language.  It’s similar to like some of the native languages we heard in Guatemala.

Josh Clark:    That’s because they’re Mayan.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, exactly but it’s got that same like I don’t know, it’s very staccato.  It’s kind of cool to hear, I think.

Josh Clark:    Right, like the Mayan city, the heart of King Spearthrower Owl’s empire is Teotihuacan, right?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.

Josh Clark:    Which sounds pretty close to –
Chuck Bryant:    That word.

Josh Clark:    – teocuitlatl, which means excrement of the gods.  That’s what the Aztecs considered gold that was a holy metal, a very, very precious metal in every sense of the word.  By 378 A.D., they weren’t the only ones to have loved gold for a very long time.

Chuck Bryant:    No, Egyptians were all over it.  They thought it was also divine.

Josh Clark:    Wait, hold on.  How would you rate that intro?

Chuck Bryant:    I would say that was on a scale of what, 1-10?

Josh Clark:    Let’s do 1-20.

Chuck Bryant:    Okay, 1-20.  I would give it a solid like 16.

Josh Clark:    Wow, thanks, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant:    Higher than you thought?

Josh Clark:    Way higher.  I thought I was gonna get a 10, that’s why I extended it to 20.

Chuck Bryant:    No, no, no.  The Egyptians, like I said, they also thought it was divine of the gods, indestructible.  They called it, I guess, nub, n-u-b.  If you’d know the African region and northeast Africa Nubia.

Josh Clark:    Or if you’re a fan of the rap group Brand Nubians.

Chuck Bryant:    Sure.

Josh Clark:    You would have heard of this.

Chuck Bryant:    I was, actually.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, they were good.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, they were.  That name still holds today because of the original Egyptian word for gold.  Africa, of course, has always been a major supplier of this stuff.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, one of the first.  Nubia was, I guess, like the first heavily mined area for gold.  On the periodic table, the shorthand for gold is Au, which I’ve never understood until I realized that it’s Latin, which makes a lot of sense.

Chuck Bryant:    I thought it would be Go or Gd.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, something like that. No, no, we had to go with the Latin aurum, which means shining dawn.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s nice.

Josh Clark:    We said all this to say that people have loved gold for a very, very, very, very long time.

Chuck Bryant:    Can I drop one of the stats of the show for me?

Josh Clark:    Right when I saw this I was like Chuck’s gonna say this is the fact [inaudible].

Chuck Bryant:    I think it’s pretty good.  I told Emily this last night and she was not as impressed as I would hope she would’ve been.  Forever and ever all the gold we’ve ever mined from the beginning of time is only 161,000 tons.  Which sounds like a lot.

Josh Clark:    That’s a lot of gold, right?

Chuck Bryant:    For all of time, that’s not a lot of gold.  They compare it to something like aluminum.  We get a 5.6 million tons a year in the United States alone of aluminum.

Josh Clark:    Again, 161,000 tons of gold is all that’s ever been mined.

Chuck Bryant:    The secondary stat that comes later, which I’ll go ahead and ruin now, is that 85 percent of all the gold we’ve ever found is still around.  We’ve only lost or cannot account for 15 percent of the gold since the beginning of time.  That’s pretty good.

Josh Clark:    It is pretty good.  It suggests two things that Williams Harris points out.  One, that means that if you are wearing a piece of gold jewelry, it may have belonged to somebody else a very, very long time ago.  Two, where exactly did they get that?  Where are they getting these gold masks and headpieces and stuff from ancient time and then melting down and reselling them?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, I don’t know.

Josh Clark:    I mean, it’s efficient and it’s good because gold is really bad for the environment, as we’ll see later on.

Chuck Bryant:    Sure, it’s really recyclable though.

Josh Clark:    It makes me wonder like how are they acquiring that.

Chuck Bryant:    What is your wedding ring, sir?

Josh Clark:    My wedding ring is platinum.

Chuck Bryant:    Platinum.

Josh Clark:    It’s lovely, isn’t it?

Chuck Bryant:    It’s very nice.

Josh Clark:    What is yours?

Chuck Bryant:    Mine is I think titanium.  It’s very cheap.  It was like $50.00.

Josh Clark:    You could take a tooth out with that thing.

Chuck Bryant:    I could.  This is actually my second one.  I lost my first one.

Josh Clark:    Inside of a turtle?  Inside of a turtle?

Chuck Bryant:    I have no idea where it is.  Maybe it’s inside of a turtle.  Luckily, I had the old e-mail and I just sent the same order for the same ring and boom, I’m married all over again for the second time.

Josh Clark:    Did you guys have another mini ceremony?

Chuck Bryant:    No.  Emily’s just like, “You need to buy another damn ring.”

Josh Clark:    That’s a lot of gold stats.  As we’ve been trying to hammer out, people have liked gold for a really long time.  Let’s talk about the history of gold, shall we?

Chuck Bryant:    Speaking of hammering out though –

Josh Clark:    Man, I knew it.

Chuck Bryant:    One more cool little fact.  Gold, one ounce of gold, one ounce of gold can be drawn out into a 50-mile wire or hammered into a sheet 5 millionth of an inch thick.  We’ll get to all this but it’s not only a beautiful thing for jewelry but it’s super handy and malleable and chemically inert and all these great things you can do with gold because of its properties.

Josh Clark:    It also makes it kind of ironic that the Egyptians considered it indestructible because it’s one of the more malleable metals around.  It’s so malleable that it has like almost no practical purposes as far as like hammering things go.  You make a gold hammer, you’re a dummy.  You know?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  Element number 79; let’s get in it.

Josh Clark:    Gold, again, people go back to the Egyptians because they were the first ones to have gold fever.  We’ve actually found evidence of gold being smithed, I guess, during the transition from the Stone Age, the Neolithic age to the Bronze Age, which was the first metal age.

Chuck Bryant:    Like before bronze even.

Josh Clark:    Right, some places that had easy access to gold, like Bulgaria, I believe in 4000 B.C. were already working with gold, long before the Egyptians ever got their hands on it.

Chuck Bryant:    The Egyptians, like you said, they really had an appetite for this stuff.  Hieroglyphs as early as 2600 showed gold.  By 1500 B.C., it was like currency basically in Egypt.

Josh Clark:    Very much so.  Do they actually mint it as currency?

Chuck Bryant:    The Egyptians?

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t know if they minted it.  I don’t think the minting came until the Greeks and Romans.

Josh Clark:    Actually, King Croesus, the ruler of ancient Lydia, which is a loss civilization, he was the first to mint gold currencies, gold coins in widespread use in 640 B.C.  It was the Greeks and then the Romans that really started to mint gold.

Chuck Bryant:    About 100 years later though.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s  a pretty nice jump on things we’ve got.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  He was like, “Hey, I like the look of this stuff.”

Chuck Bryant:    “I’m gonna put my face on it.”

Josh Clark:    Exactly.  “You guys are gonna use it.”

Chuck Bryant:    By 550, the Greeks were doing it and then the Romans, of course, with their more sophisticated ways followed suit.

Josh Clark:    The aureus coins.

Chuck Bryant:    Is that what they were called?

Josh Clark:    Yeah, they produced millions of them.  Those are the ones that they find like to some farmer in like Devonshire in England will dig up a chest filled with these things because the Romans were everywhere.  They minted a lot of these coins.

Chuck Bryant:    As they’re doing this, the same thing is going on about the same time in South America because they have a lot of gold there as well.  What’s it called?  The Middle Sican era?

Josh Clark:    I couldn’t tell if it was Sican or Sisan.

Chuck Bryant:    I bet it’s Sisan.

Josh Clark:    Sison.

Chuck Bryant:    I bet it’s not Sison.  A.D. 900 to 1100, this is modern day Peru.  There’d been a lot of gold artifacts found in that region.  They were using them like crazy.

Josh Clark:    For sure.  The Peruvians were crazy about it, the Inca.

Chuck Bryant:    Like masks, ornaments, challises, all the good stuff.

Josh Clark:    Their specialty was hammering gold into sheets and like wrapping stuff in it, like creating gold leaf.

Chuck Bryant:    Interesting.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, they were pretty good at that kind of thing.  There was already a certain amount of gold fever over in Europe.  I think the English minted their first gold coin in the mid 13th century.  The same with the Florentine Duket, those were both about the middle of the 13th century.

Chuck Bryant:    That was a popular coin.

Josh Clark:    It was.  It still is.

Chuck Bryant:    Is it?

Josh Clark:    Among collectors, sure.  People in Europe were exposed to gold.  They liked gold.  They wanted gold.  Over in Central and South America, over in Asia, they also had a thing for gold.  The Europeans were one of the first to say, “Hey, let’s see where the edge of the earth is and if there’s gold there.”  One of the first people to do that was Marco Polo.  Strangely, a lot of people hate Christopher Columbus or think he was one of the more evil characters in history, possibly rightfully so.

You can actually trace the infection that Columbus really literally and metaphorically backed to Marco Polo because apparently there’s evidence that Marco Polo directly inspired Christopher Columbus to set sail in search of gold.

Chuck Bryant:    Growing up in history class, you always learned about the great explorers.  The more you learn about it, the real histories as you get older, the more you learn that many times they weren’t just sailing up on the shore with a bouquet of flowers to deliver.

Josh Clark:    Most of the time, I would say.

Chuck Bryant:    It was usually they were in conquer mode.  For one reason, to spread Christianity as the Spaniards really wanted to do.

Josh Clark:    That was the cover story.

Chuck Bryant:    The cover story but King Ferdinand in 1511 also sent word, “While you’re there,” I added that part.  While you’re there then start quote, “Get gold humanely if you can but at all hazards get the gold.”   That was definitely a charge.  Thanks to the Travels of Marco Polo, the book that he wrote where he talked about palaces of silver and gold, people thought it was just like the streets were lined with this stuff in a new world.

Josh Clark:    Imagine though if you were one of the conquistadores who started sailing west and you ran into the Maya or the Aztecs or the Inca and you saw that they had all this gold, you would think this is all very much true and this place is gold city so let’s kill all these people and take their gold.  There was actually a famed gold city, El Dorado.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s what they’re all looking for.

Josh Clark:    Exactly, like everyone was looking for El Dorados.  Apparently, every time a conquistador would find a significant seam of gold, they found El Dorado.  Everybody else would come and it’d become like a boom area.

Chuck Bryant:    Of course, it was a mythical city, right?

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    It was just like legend?

Josh Clark:    Yeah, and probably the closest thing to it, obviously, not a city built of gold but the closest thing to it it was in Brazil in the Minas Gerais region.  Minas Gerais?

Chuck Bryant:    That looks good.  Ricky Gervais.

Josh Clark:    We’ve been doing this like five years and our pronunciation is maybe even worse rather than better.

Chuck Bryant:    Actually, we have a listener mail today where someone lods us just for taking a chance and being willing to be corrected.

Josh Clark:    Thank you.  I’m glad to hear that.

Chuck Bryant:    I’ll read that one at the end of this one.  That was in 1700 in Brazil.  There was a lot of gold there.  They were the largest gold producer by 1720.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, 20 years they became the world’s largest gold producer in Brazil.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s crazy.

Josh Clark:    Because of this area.

Chuck Bryant:    Using of course, slave labor, panning for gold in sort of rudimentary ways.  Not good.

Josh Clark:    No.  We’re not too far removed from that now.

Chuck Bryant:    No, we’re not.  Onto America, North America.  California, the Gold Rush, the point here is is that gold has rewritten history and how we form societies because of the search for gold.

Josh Clark:    It’s spread people out over the world and intermixed and intermarried and inter did it.  We have entire groups of people, ethnicities, who are the result of gold.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, the Gold Rushes.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    California gets a lot of press obviously because by the end of the first year of the Gold Rush, afterwards discovered in 1848, 5,000 people were mining there.  By the end of the second year, 40,000 people were mining there.  But North Carolina, actually, was the first American Gold Rush.

Josh Clark:    Like you were saying, California gets all the attention.  The San Francisco 49ers are named after the Gold Rush.  There was that great Scooby Doo episode with the miner 49er.  You remember him?

Chuck Bryant:    Yes, I do.

Josh Clark:    The big scary guy.  When you think of Gold Rush, you think of California or I also think of Dahlonega.

Chuck Bryant:    He was Georgia.

Josh Clark:    The mayor of Dahlonega was the one who said, “There’s gold in them thar hills.”

Chuck Bryant:    Really?

Josh Clark:    Yeah, it was the mayor of Dahlonega.

Chuck Bryant:    I had no idea.

Josh Clark:    His name was Todd something, I think.

Chuck Bryant:    Have you ever panned up there in Dahlonega?

Josh Clark:    No.  Nuh-uh.

Chuck Bryant:    I did that when I was a kid.  You know.  It’s fun if you’re a little kid.  You think you’re gonna find a little gold fleck and be rich.  You just might find a little gold fleck.

Josh Clark:    If you do –

Chuck Bryant:    You won’t be rich.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, you’re gonna find it doesn’t buy you virtually anything.  You were saying North Carolina doesn’t usually get much attention.  That was the first Gold Rush in the U.S.?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, up until the 1830s, in fact, they supplied all of the domestic gold that was coined here, the U.S. mint in Philly came from North Carolina or North Cackalacky, as we like to call it.

Josh Clark:    Who calls it that?

Chuck Bryant:    You never called it that?  Have you ever heard it called that?

Josh Clark:    I have on there’s a Tribe Called Quest song.

Chuck Bryant:    Oh, really?

Josh Clark:    I can’t remember what it is.  Somebody calls it North Cackalack and Compton, check it, check it, check it out.

Chuck Bryant:    No, I didn’t make that up.

Josh Clark:    I just rapped.

Chuck Bryant:    You did.  You’re J-Tip.

Josh Clark:    We talked about the Gold Rushes in the U.S.  There was also a big one in Aus.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, we can’t leave out our Aussie mates.

Josh Clark:    No.  Hello, Australia.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.   They’re like, “We’ve got tons of gold.”  They’re like, “It’s so hot.”  I watched Mad Max the other day by the way all the way through, the original.

Josh Clark:    That was a good one.

Chuck Bryant:    It was. Road Warrior got out most of the attention because it was bigger and more of an action adventure.  Mad Max was a really dark kind of a revengy exploitation movie.  It was really good.

Josh Clark:    Ausploitation.

Chuck Bryant:    Ausploitation.

Josh Clark:    Was that the one where the guys in the personal helicopter, is that Road Warrior or Mad Max?

Chuck Bryant:    That’s Road Warrior, when they [inaudible].

Josh Clark:    I don’t think I’ve seen Mad Max then.

Chuck Bryant:    It was when Mel Gibson was still a cop.  There was this biker gang led by the Toecutter.  You wanna know something cool?

Josh Clark:    What?

Chuck Bryant:    You know Justin, my friend?

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    His uncle was the Toecutter.

Josh Clark:    In Mad Max?

Chuck Bryant:    Uh-hum.

Josh Clark:    Wow.

Chuck Bryant:    Man, I can’t remember his name now.  Uncle –

Josh Clark:    Uncle Toecutter.

Chuck Bryant:    No, we didn’t call him that.

Josh Clark:    That’s what it says in his Christmas stocking.

Chuck Bryant:    No, he just sends toes every year in that little card.  Man, I can’t remember his name now.  Uncle?  Yeah, Uncle Toecutter.

Josh Clark:    I think that’s the better name.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  It’s pretty cool.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  Australia has this huge Gold Rush in the what?  1850s?

Chuck Bryant:    Yes, 1850.

Josh Clark:    A guy named Edward Hammond Hargraves found gold in New South Wales, bam, Gold Rush.  A few years later, South Africa steps onto the scene, 1868, George Harrison, he uncovered gold in South Africa.  How many contributions has that man made to humanity in his 160 years?

Chuck Bryant:    He wrote Here Comes the Sun.  He discovered gold like 100 years before he was born.  Not 100, but 100 years before he was famous.

Josh Clark:    Right.  About the same time.  About a full century.  Down in South Africa is the leading gold producer in the world.

Chuck Bryant:    Today it is?

Josh Clark:    Uh-hum.  Followed by the United States.

Chuck Bryant:    That surprises me.

Josh Clark:    In the United States, Navada is the number one gold producer these days.

Chuck Bryant:    You mean Nevada.

Josh Clark:    Navada.

Chuck Bryant:    Let’s talk about how you get gold onto your finger.  It’s not as easy as you would think.  It’s at times rudimentary and at times a little more sophisticated, the whole process.

Josh Clark:    And complexed to say the least.  It really shows how much we want gold.

Chuck Bryant:    It’s sort of like fracking in a way too, the one method.  What you gotta do, you gotta start by prospecting, which is the act of looking for gold.

Josh Clark:    Right.  That’s what you would call an old grizzled dude with a packed mule up in the hills in California, a prospector.  That’s what you’d call a geologist who finds gold today too.  They’re still called prospectors.

Chuck Bryant:    I guess the idea is that what are the prospects for finding gold. I’m sure that’s where it came from, right?

Josh Clark:    Maybe.

Chuck Bryant:    So they’re a prospect.

Josh Clark:    That makes a lot of sense.  I never thought about that.

Chuck Bryant:    Back in the day, there was a lot of luck involved looking around for it basically where you think it might be.  These days, it is way more precise.  They have equipment that can tell you if there is likely gold there.  Here’s the thing.  There’s gold everywhere but it’s just not concentrated enough to be worth mining.

Josh Clark:    That’s an excellent point.  In most cases, it’s invisible but it’s still present in the soil.

Chuck Bryant:    Ain’t that crazy?

Josh Clark:    Uh-hum.

Chuck Bryant:    Invisible gold in dirt and rocks.

Josh Clark:    Or it’s in Goldschlager.  That’s crazy too.  It’s like they’re just throwing it away.

Chuck Bryant:    They’re not throwing it away.  You’re drinking it for a premium price.

Josh Clark:    That’s crazy.

Chuck Bryant:    That stuff’s gross.  That was like a college thing.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    “Give me a Goldschlager.”

Josh Clark:    Goldschlager, Jagermeister, anything that sounded like vaguely Germanic, that was a college thing.

Chuck Bryant:    Meister Brau.

Josh Clark:    Right.

Chuck Bryant:    Where they find gold in heaviest concentration is when they will say, “All right.  You know what?  It’s worth setting up a mining operation here.  There may be other metals there like silver, which is great.”

Josh Clark:    A lot of times gold is combined with silver in an ore, which I’m sure you’re just like, “Okay.”

Chuck Bryant:    Great.

Josh Clark:    That’s fine with me.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s twice the value.  Not twice the value but.

Josh Clark:    One and three quarters times the value.

Chuck Bryant:    We could figure it out.  They drill down to obtain samples, analyze it, see if there’s enough gold.  If there is, they’re gonna set up a mining operation there.  If there’s not, they’re gonna move on and look at another place that they think that might have a lot of gold.

Josh Clark:    Depending on how the gold is present in the area, there’s basically two ways.  One is the lode, a lode deposit, which is it’s combined with rock or ore and it can be at the surface or underground.  With a lode deposit, basically, you just wanna blow things up when you find gold like that.  If it’s at the surface, you’re gonna use what’s called an open pit method, which is basically you just drill a bunch of holes into the ore, the gold ore, put some explosives in there and blow it up and then haul the ore out.

Chuck Bryant:    If they could load up that huge bolder and take it and do it neater somewhere else, they might.  They’re just trying to make smaller rocks.

Josh Clark:    Excellent point.

Chuck Bryant:    For transport.

Josh Clark:    If it’s underground, if the lode is underground, they’ll dig a shaft down to it and adit.  You go down to it and this is a big shaft.

Chuck Bryant:    I’m sure.

Josh Clark:    They go down to it and drill holes all the way through that ore rock.  Those holes are called stopes.  They pack those full of explosives and blow it up.  It’s basically like the open pit method but underground because then they just truck that ore out and off to the extractor.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s right.  If you’re in Dahlonega, Georgia or maybe at a river in Utah.

Josh Clark:    Why not?  Why not give a Utah shout out?

Chuck Bryant:    You might look for something called a placer deposit.  That is when you find the loose gold in a streambed, the little flakes or the little chunks or the little nuggets in a mountain stream or a beach.  This is where you would pan.  You scoop it up in a pan and you shake it and the gold –

Josh Clark:    Use a lot of water.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, a lot of water because gold is more dense so it’s gonna sink and collect to the bottom.  Maybe a little screen that separates everything.  Then you got a little bit of gold, hopefully.

Josh Clark:    The sixth graders are all very happy.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s right, or I imagine if you were a prospector in California back in the day, you could do quite well as a panner.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, you ‘d look around and be like, “It’s mine.  It’s my gold.”

Chuck Bryant:    Then you have to extract it, that’s the next step.

Josh Clark:    You’ve got all these big rocks that you’ve blown up.  I guess this is mostly the first couple steps are from lode deposits.  You have a bunch of rocks.  You put them on a conveyor belt and they go into a machine that’s appropriately called the crusher, which breaks the ore into gravel.  Then you take that gravel and you put them into drums with a bunch of little steel balls, spin it around real quick and the steel balls collide with that gravel and they turn it into basically like a powder.

You add water to that powder.  You form a slurry, add cyanide to that slurry and it expose it to oxygen and all of a sudden, you’re starting to extract gold from ore.

Chuck Bryant:    The pulp basically, the gold in the pulp dissolves with that chemical reaction; the cyanide and the O2.  Throw a little carbon in there, like tiny little carbon grains, and the gold is gonna adhere to it.  They like each other very much.  They’re gonna get together and party for a little while.  Then you filter that and you have gold bearing carbon at this point.  It’s still not pure gold.  It’s gold with carbon.  Then you move that to something called a stripping vessel.  They put another solution, a caustic solution, to separate the gold from the carbon.  Add more filters to filter out the carbon.  Now, you have actual a gold bearing solution.  You’re still not done.

Josh Clark:    No.  This is my favorite part.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  This is pretty cool.

Josh Clark:    It’s called electrowinning, which thank god, Charlie Sheen never heard of this because this whole thing would be even more annoying.  You put gold into a cell with positive and negative terminals.  Pass an electrical current over it and the gold separates from the carbon solution, or the gold bearing solution, and is attracted to the negative terminal.  So much so that I get the impression that basically it becomes embedded in the negative terminals.

Chuck Bryant:    I kinda wondered because the next step is to actually melt that negative terminal along with the gold.

Josh Clark:    Right.  And then you begin to separate the two basically you pour off the negative terminal metal, maybe steel or something like that.

Chuck Bryant:    It’s called smelting, by the way.

Josh Clark:    Right, exactly.  When you smelt – I thought smelt was just melting.  I’m like, “Why do they add the s?”

Chuck Bryant:    Cause it’s not melting, it’s smelting.

Josh Clark:    Exactly.  When you pour off the steel, I guess maybe that comes off first and then what you have left is relatively impure gold but it’s as close as you’re gonna get it in the extracting process. You pour that into bars.  It’s called dore bars and then you ship them off to the refiner.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s not the bar that you will see in Die Hard III.  This is a more impure dore bar.  I’m sure it’s still nice to have one.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, I’m sure.  You could be like, “Look at me.”

Chuck Bryant:    That’s right.  Then you need to refine gold from that point once you have it in its purest impure form.

Josh Clark:    Imagine the process that we just went through.  It was like add this, subtract this, remove that, but add this and then let the gold adhere to this and let’s burn the whole thing up until it gets melty and it’s still impure.  It still has to be refined.  When refineries get gold dore bars, they also frequently when you sell your gold to J.D. Wentworth or whoever, they take all this gold scrap and send that off also to these refineries, which also serve as recycling centers too basically.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s the saddest shipment.  It’s just full of people’s lost hopes and dreams and memories, wedding rings and gold bracelets, anniversary bracelets all just sent back to be melted down.

Josh Clark:    Because of the economy.  When they throw all this into the same pot, they add a little bit of soda ash, a little bit of borax.  Honestly, what can’t borax do?    The soda ash and borax basically filters out impurities.  What you have left most of the time and they use a say test to figure out the purity, but you have about 99.9 percent pure gold.  That’s usually what they stamp on the bar that they pour.  Those bars are called ingots.

Chuck Bryant:    Those are the ones you’ll see in heist movies.

Josh Clark:    Yes.

Chuck Bryant:    If you have ever seen Die Hard III and you see them loading up these ingots into big gym bags and then throwing them over their shoulder and running out, that is not possible because each one of those bars weighs 27 pounds.  If you have 50 of those in a bag, like Jeremy Irons might –

Josh Clark:    Jeremy Irons’ not as strong man.

Chuck Bryant:    No, you’re not gonna throw that on your back like 300 pounds of gold and go running up a bunch of stairs out of the New York, where is it?

Josh Clark:    The Federal Reserve Bank.

Chuck Bryant:    Federal Reserve Bank, yeah.

Josh Clark:    Supposedly there and Fort Knox is where they have all the gold.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, Emily was talking last night about that.  She was like, “That doesn’t sound very safe to have all this gold in one place.”  I was like that’s why they say it’s like built like Fort Knox, it’s super secure.  She was like, “Yeah, but what if some terrorists just bombed it?”  She was like, “You could just bomb it and then sneak out of there with the gold.”  I went, “You just wrote Die Hard III.”  She’s like, “Is that what happened?”  I went, “That’s exactly what happened.”

Josh Clark:    I think she makes a good point.  I was thinking last night too if we have all this gold and if it is all there, just keeping it in two places, it seems I don’t know.  It seems unusually like tempting fate.  I think I agree with Emily.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  Six billion dollars worth of gold at Fort Knox.

Josh Clark:    No, no, my friend.

Chuck Bryant:    Is that more now?

Josh Clark:    Dude.  When Harris wrote this one, gold was 42.22 an ounce, $42.22 an ounce.  Right now, it’s $1,667.49 an ounce.  That means that if Fort Knox holds 147.3 million ounces of gold, that gold is worth $245.6 billion just sitting there at Fort Knox.

Chuck Bryant:    When did he write this article, like 1935?

Josh Clark:    No, I think gold went up that much in the last couple years because of the economy.  Everybody flocked to gold.  Demand increased and so the price did.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s so amazing to me after all these years, gold is still like, people hoard it.

Josh Clark:    When gold prices are low, you are very smart to invest in gold because there’s always gonna be another economic downturn and the prices always gonna skyrocket.

Chuck Bryant:    You got a couple ingots in your closet?

Josh Clark:    I have them strapped to my leg.  That’s why I have a limp.

Chuck Bryant:    Is that why you walk funny?

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    During the refining stage, we should point out that a lot of times they will – because gold is so soft, pure gold is, they will combine it with other metals to form alloys and that’s why you will get something like white gold, which is gold combined with nickel or silver or palladium, red gold is gold and copper.

Josh Clark:    That’s pretty.

Chuck Bryant:    I’ve never seen red gold, I don’t think.

Josh Clark:    You’ve seen rose gold, surely.

Chuck Bryant:    Have I?

Josh Clark:    Sure.

Chuck Bryant:        At all my fancy party scene.

Josh Clark:        It has just a slight pink hue to it.  It’s very pretty stuff.

Chuck Bryant:        Yeah?

Josh Clark:        Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:        I’m not big into gold like as far as jewelry.

Josh Clark:        No, I’m with you.

Chuck Bryant:    Of course, you have to talk about karats, karatage.  That is how much gold is in the object compared to like silver, nickel or whatever else is in that alloy.  Interestingly, different countries have different preferences.  Here, you always hear about 14 karat gold in the United States, which is only 58.5 percent gold.  Apparently in India, they’re partial to the 22 karat, which is 91.75 percent gold.  The Europeans like to take that middle road and hit 18 karats.

Josh Clark:    That’s very strange.  I don’t understand what it is.  I can understand price being a factor but that’s very odd to me that cultures prefer it.

Chuck Bryant:    24 karats is 100 percent gold, obviously.

Josh Clark:    12 karat is 50 percent gold.

Chuck Bryant:    About 2/3s of all the gold is jewelry.

Josh Clark:    Which makes sense.  What’s interesting about the jewelry is that it’s still basically produced as it has been for hundreds or thousands of years using the same techniques, virtually the same tools.  I’m sure their manufactured much differently but they are kind of the same thing.  While jewelry accounts for, what’d you say, two thirds of all the gold in use?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, nearly two thirds.

Josh Clark:    There’s a lot of other pretty interesting uses for gold too.  Electronics use a lot of gold and a lot of other rare earth minerals like apparently gold is very, very conductive.  It’s more conductive than any metal except for copper and silver.  It has a leg up on copper and silver in that it corrodes.  It’s very difficult for gold to corrode.  That means that if you want something that’s gonna last a very long time and be conductive, you might as well use some gold.  They do in things like processors and hard drives and that kind of stuff.

Chuck Bryant:    You might see gold on your headphone plug.  Your headphone jack might be gold plated because if it’s higher end, they might use gold.  It conducts electricity and therefore sound better.

Josh Clark:    I have seen that.  I just thought it was like –

Chuck Bryant:    Fancy.

Josh Clark:    – high end or something.

Chuck Bryant:    Here’s a cool stat.  Because they use it so much in electronics and microelectronics, NASA used more than 40 kilograms, 90 pounds of gold in the construction of the space shuttle Columbia.  That’s a pretty cool fact.

Josh Clark:    Electronics and they used it as a reflected surface.  They used gold film.  You remember you can [inaudible] gold into .15 millimeter thin sheet.

Chuck Bryant:    It’s amazing.  It’s light at that point, highly reflective, effective against radiation.  That’s pretty awesome.

Josh Clark:    You’d also use it for crowns.

Chuck Bryant:    They still use gold crowns, don’t they?

Josh Clark:    I guess.  I imagine because it’s not reactive, because when things are reactive especially with cooking, it’ll make things taste terribly.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s true.

Josh Clark:    There’s something called a fish fork.  It was made of silver and apparently if you had this thing it was like a status symbol or whatever in the Victorian era.  It also did have a practical use in that, silver didn’t react with lemon juice, which is often used to serve with fish so it didn’t affect the taste.  I imagine that’s probably one of the reasons why they use gold in crowns so that everything doesn’t just taste bad because it’s not reacting with anything because it’s chemically inert.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s a good point because you don’t wanna be eating something and think, “Oh man, my new gold tooth makes this tilapia taste like squid or poop.”

Josh Clark:    Taste like squid.

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t know.

Josh Clark:    That’s not so bad.

Chuck Bryant:    No, I like squid, but if you’re eating tilapia you don’t wanna eat squid.

Josh Clark:    You eat squid.  Will you eat octopus?

Chuck Bryant:    I’ll eat all that stuff to a certain degree.  I mean, like Emily, when it comes to calamari, she will only eat like the things that look like little onion rings.  As soon as it looks like the little miniature creature, she’s like, “That’s for you.”  I pop that in my mouth.

Josh Clark:    I will eat both.  I’ll especially eat squid.  Umi won’t eat octopus because of I remember one of our friends had a friend, they told us a story that their friend was a cook for some couple down in the Caribbean.  The couple caught an octopus and was going to cook it or they gave it their cook to cook.  The cook was going to put it in the pot alive and the octopus was wrapping its tentacles around the woman like, “Please don’t kill me.”  She said it was like one of the worst things that ever happened to her because she did it anyway.

Chuck Bryant:    Like when you literally have to fight to put the animal to their death that’s not good.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  That combined with I think being inspired to go research octopi and finding that they are very intelligent, Umi’s like, “I just can’t eat those anymore,” which is sad because they pop up in some pretty delicious dishes.

Chuck Bryant:    I imagine.

Josh Clark:    They’re a very smart animal and doesn’t wanna be cooked.

Chuck Bryant:    Umi’s like, “I’m just gonna eat dumb animals.”  Just stupid ones.

Josh Clark:    Right.

Chuck Bryant:    I can see that.  I would be traumatized.

Josh Clark:    Oh my God, yeah, because it was like, “No.”

Chuck Bryant:    I would just walk slowly into the ocean until it released itself and swam away.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  You’d be the woodsman in Snow White like, “I don’t know what happened to it.”

Chuck Bryant:    Then you’d start to walk back and the octopus reaches up with one hand and holds your hand.  He’s like, “I wanna be your pet.  I don’t wanna go back to the sea.”

Josh Clark:    “Just don’t cook me.”

Chuck Bryant:    “Don’t cook me.”  Where did we leave off?  Food and beverage.  You can get it in Goldschlager.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    And certain jellies.

Josh Clark:    Gold, by the way, not octopus.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah, yeah, yeah.  That’s all just for marketing and making things look fancy.

Josh Clark:    It really is.  They have the world’s most expensive sundae or the world’s most expensive salad or whatever.

Chuck Bryant:    It’s always got gold flakes.

Josh Clark:    It does so much so that I think we’ve talked about this, they have another category for it; world’s most expensive non-gold because it’s like any schmoking can spit out a hot dog and relish and then put gold flakes on it be like world’s most expensive hot dog.  That doesn’t really account.

Chuck Bryant:    I hate those people.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    Then that means some of the gold that we’ve lost that 15 percent has been pooped out.

Josh Clark:    I guess so.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s sad.

Josh Clark:    Is it?

Chuck Bryant:    I think so.  Since it’s so limited in supply and bad for the environment to get.  I guess we should talk about that.

Josh Clark:    We probably should because I was very surprised.  I’d heard that gold was bad for the environment but I didn’t realize this.  You wanna tell one of the facts the podcast?

Chuck Bryant:    Yes, it is like most mining operations, not great for the environment.  In order to get just one ounce of gold, you have to get out 250 tons of the rock and ore.  A lot of times, well of course, there’s the cyanide, which is never great when you’re introducing those kind of chemicals.

Josh Clark:    No.  Apparently, they take this affluent, right?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.

Josh Clark:    Or affluent and they dump it out in the ocean.

Chuck Bryant:    Really?

Josh Clark:    Which probably affects octopi.  It’s like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of cyanide water.”  I’m sure the ocean will eventually even things out but for that local area where it gets dumped, that can’t be good.

Chuck Bryant:    Of course not.  That’s why there’s a group, a non-profit called Earthworks.  It runs a campaign called No Dirty Gold.  I imagine if you have a gold wedding band and a blood diamond on your finger, then you’re just like, that’s a double whammy against the world.

Josh Clark:    That’s a hetric.

Chuck Bryant:    No, hetric would be three.

Josh Clark:    Not in this case.  That’s as good as you can get or as bad as it gets.

Chuck Bryant:    We should talk a little bit about gold although I think we should do a full podcast on the gold standard at some point.  I know we’ve touched on it.

Josh Clark:    I agree.

Chuck Bryant:    At some point.

Josh Clark:    Let’s do that.

Chuck Bryant:    The gold standard was, wasn’t it like every dollar amount that you could print there was a certain amount of gold that had to be in reserve that matched that?

Josh Clark:    Yes.

Chuck Bryant:    Is that what it was?

Josh Clark:    Yes, exactly.  And if you had a bunch, if you had enough money you could go up to the Federal Reserve and say, “I wanna cash this money out for gold.”  They had to give it to you by federal law.

Chuck Bryant:    That was from 1900-1971 when didn’t we just start printing more money than gold and said, “We should abandon the gold standard”?

Josh Clark:    Yeah, and I think when you detach your currency from gold it becomes a fiat currency to the whims of the market.

Chuck Bryant:    I seem to remember discussing this on one of our econ podcast way back when.

Josh Clark:    Maybe even –

Chuck Bryant:    The audiobook maybe?

Josh Clark:    – how the economy worked, the super stuff guide to the economy, that’s what it’s called.  That was a good one.

Chuck Bryant:    That was a good one.  236 tons of gold are being so called hoarded by people and governments.  Is that all, 236 tons?

Josh Clark:    It seemed like if there was still 85 percent of the 161,000 tons, that doesn’t seem like much.

Chuck Bryant:    It doesn’t.

Josh Clark:    It’s a lot of jewelry being worn.

Chuck Bryant:    They think there was actually gold out in outer space in some of these big asteroids flying by that are chock full of minerals and other metals.  There was a, in 1998 the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft passed close enough to the asteroid Eros to actually send back data.  They think the Eros might have as much as 20 billion tons of gold.

Josh Clark:    Which would probably really drop the value of gold here on earth if anyone ever got their hands on that.

Chuck Bryant:    How do you go about capturing an asteroid I wonder?

Josh Clark:    We did a podcast on asteroid mining, remember?

Chuck Bryant:    Is that the same thing?

Josh Clark:    Uh-hum.  That’s what they would do.

Chuck Bryant:    I retreat then.  We should just do that.

Josh Clark:    We could do that.  Let’s go get Eros.

Chuck Bryant:    Let’s send Bruce Willis up with a lasso, a golden lasso to –

Josh Clark:    Fighting a jackalope.

Chuck Bryant:    Attach it to the jackalope’s tail and just ride it back to earth.

Josh Clark:    You got anything else?

Chuck Bryant:    No, I don’t.

Josh Clark:    I have one more thing.  I wanna recommend, Harris didn’t mention this.  One of the other really bad environmental impacts of gold is illegal gold mining.  Apparently, Guyana has a lot of illegal gold mining.  One of the things that if you’re an illegal underground gold miner, you’re not going through this elaborate extraction and refining process.  You are basically taking your ore and you’re refining or extracting onsite using mercury.  Mercury is what they use.

There’s not only a lot of like illegal horrible for the environment gold mining going on, there’s also a lot of mercury mining and a lot of mercury run offs.  There’s mercury poisoning all over Guyana right now.  There’s a really great article.  It may have won a Pulitzer.  I found it on Pulitzer.org.  It was originally in Harper’s, that’s where I read it.  Gold, Guns and Garimpeiros, that is g-a-r-i-m-p-e-i-r-o-s.  It’s by Damon Tabor.

Chuck Bryant:    Good stuff?

Josh Clark:    Awesome article.  It’s so engrossing.

Chuck Bryant:    One of those that makes you wanna like not ever use gold for anything?

Josh Clark:    It has that affect a little bit but it’s more just completely fascinating.  You just can’t believe that people are doing this.

Chuck Bryant:    Child labor too, right?  Ain’t that a big problem?

Josh Clark:    I think that’s part of it but more it’s just you really risk death in these they’re called wildcat camps, these illegal gold mining operations because if somebody’s –

Chuck Bryant:    The cyanide and the explosives?

Josh Clark:    – in the mercury –

Chuck Bryant:    In the mercury.

Josh Clark:    – and the guns and peoples taking other people’s claims.  Bad news.  There you go.

Chuck Bryant:    Gold.

Josh Clark:    Gold.  If you wanna learn more about gold you can type that word into the handy search bar at howstuffworks.com.  Since I said that, it’s time for listener mail.

Chuck Bryant:    Josh, I’m gonna call this the Ten Commandments of Chuck and Josh, although there’s only eight.  This is from Professor Tom.  “Guys, I teach a communications course at an area community college and universities.  I often recommend your podcast to my classes especially the students that seem to love learning but may have not been encouraged by family or friends.  I’m hoping that they may pick a few important life lessons from you guys as well as interesting facts.  Here are a few life lesson highlights that I think you guys display.  Number one, normal guys can talk about something other than sports.”

Josh Clark:    It’s true.

Chuck Bryant:    You know, I like sports.  “Number two, good presentations begin with an attention getting introduction.”  Josh will tell you this is sometimes easier said than done.

Josh Clark:    Yes, that’s absolutely correct.

Chuck Bryant:    “If you don’t know something, look it up.  If you’re looking it up on the Internet, check more than one source.”  Life lessons.

Josh Clark:    This guy’s really paying attention to what we’re doing.

Chuck Bryant:    He is.  “Learning involves mistakes, number four.  Take a shot at pronouncing a new word.  If you get it wrong, venture a guess, share new hypothesis then invite feedback, which is the important part.”

Josh Clark:    Garimpeiros.

Chuck Bryant:    “Number five, you don’t have to make fun of people to be funny.  If you absolutely must mock someone, mock yourself.”  You’re good at that.  “Number six, it’s okay for guys to have a variety of emotions.  There’s nothing unmanly with being sensitive or expressing emotions other than anger.  It’s even healthy for guys to talk about their emotions.”  Chuck.

Josh Clark:    You’re like the new Rosey Grier.

Chuck Bryant:    “Number seven, it’s worth the effort to be respectful of others.  Sometimes you have to stop yourself before you make an offhand joke, which we do.  Sometimes you have to use a term that is more accurate or up to date, which we try and do.  Sometimes you have to remember what it feels like to be seen as different and see if your language could be more inclusive or encouraging even if only one person in your audience notices the efforts, it’s worth it.”

Josh Clark:    Is this my conscience writing it?

Chuck Bryant:    “Number eight, curiosity can last a lifetime.”  That was the last one.  He said, “Guys, there’s a lot to be said for teaching by example.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re doing it every week.”  He goes on with an interesting P.S. from Professor Tom.  P.S. A few of my gay male friends and I got to talking about your show.  We tried to figure out which type you would be if you’d been born gay.  It was unanimous, Chuck is clearly a bear.  If you have a gay brother, Chuck, I have a few friends who would like to meet him.  I do have a brother but he is not gay and he would not be a bear.  He is prettier than me.

Josh Clark:    He is very pretty.

Chuck Bryant:    You would actually love my brother.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, he’s got great hair.

Chuck Bryant:    I thought you guys would like knowing that you’re being stereotyped by a bunch of gay guys standing around drinking beer at a bar called The Hole performing Stuff You Should Know podcast analysis of the world.

Josh Clark:    Thanks Professor Tom.

Chuck Bryant:    That’s a great e-mail.

Josh Clark:    That was a great e-mail.  We gotta print that one out and frame it.  If you ever do analysis of Stuff You Should Know, we wanna hear what you’ve concluded.  You could Tweet to us if it’s a short conclusion at syskpodcast.  You can join us at Facebook.com/stuffyoushouldknow.  You could send us an e-mail to stuffpodcast@discovery.com and you can join us on our website always, the home of Stuff You Should Know, that is stuffyoushouldknow.com.

Chuck Bryant:    Don’t forget to watch our TV show, Science Channel Saturdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Josh Clark:    That’s exactly right, .com.

Female Speaker:    For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com.

Male Speaker:    Brought to you by the 2012 Toyota Camry.  It’s ready.  Are you?

[End of Audio]

Duration: 46 minutes

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