(Roughly) Daily

(Not so) Solid Gold…

During World War II, Hitler banned the export of gold from Germany.  But gold, valuable in small amounts and not easily traced, is notoriously difficult to regulate.  (Indeed, that is likely where much of its value derives.) Hitler’s edict was, frustratingly to him, mostly unenforceable.

One exception? Nobel Prize medals.

Before 1980, the medals given by Sweden (that’s to say, all but the Nobel Peace Prize , which is awarded by Norway) were made of 600 grams of 23-karat gold — thus subject to Hitler’s export ban.  And as the recipient’s name was engraved on the back of the medal, its ownership was all-too-clear.  This proved particularly perilous for two German physics laureates, Max von Laue (winner, 1914) and James Franck (1925).  At the outset of World War II, they had entrusted the Bohr Institute, in Copenhagen, Denmark (the research institution of fellow physics laureate Neils Bohr) with the safe keeping of their medals, assuming that Nazi soldiers would otherwise confiscate their prizes.  But when Nazi troops invaded Denmark, they also raided the Institute.  Had von Laue’s and Franck’s medals been discovered, the consequences for the learned duo would most likely have been dire.

Enter Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy, a future Nobel Laureate himself (in Chemistry).  He, Jewish, had gone to the Institute looking for — and temporarily at least, finding — safe haven from the Nazis.   He and Bohr decided that more standard ways of hiding the medals (e.g. burying them) would not suffice, as the risk of harm to von Laue and Franck was too great to chance the medal’s discovery.  The chemist de Hevesy took more drastic action.  He created a solution of aqua regia — a concoction consisting typically one part nitric acid to three parts hydrochloric acid, which is so named because it can dissolve two of the “royal” metals, gold and platinum.  (Wikipedia explains how, for those with a sizable understanding of chemistry.)  He then left the gold-bearing aqua regia solution on his laboratory shelf within the Institute, hidden in plain sight as Nazi stormtroopers ransacked the Institute.

The plan worked, and von Laue and Franck were safe — as were their awards.  The gold remained safely on that shelf, suspended in aqua regia, for the remainder of the war, unnoticed by the German soldiers.  When the war ended, de Hevesy precipitated the gold out of the solution, and the Nobel committee recast the medals.

Bonus fact: Throughout human history (through 2009, at least), mankind has successfully mined roughly 165,000 metric tons of gold.  At gold’s density, that comes out to about 300,000 cubic feet — a relatively tiny-sized amount. For comparison’s sake, all the gold ever mined could be contained by the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room (seen here), which has a volume of approximately 1.2 million cubic feet.

From the always-illuminating Now I Know.


As we remark that sometimes even things that don’t shine are gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Morris William Travers; he was born on this date in 1872.  As the laboratory partner of Sir William Ramsay (who later won a Nobel Prize for the work), Travers participated in the discovery of the “noble gases”– Neon, Xenon… and Krypton.

Bohr model of a Krypton atom

Not, as Wired reminds us, to be confused with the planet Krypton…

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in Action Comics No. 1 (published June 1938), they named their superhero’s home planet after the chemical element discovered 40 years earlier. Retellings of Superman’s origins place his arrival on Earth around the time of World War I, a mere 20 years after Ramsay’s and Travers’ discovery of krypton.

Siegel and Shuster may have been inspired by the element’s cryptic name [from the Greek kryptos for hidden], its ghastly glow, or perhaps just its sound– like George Eastman favoring the strength of the letter K.

Travers went on to be the founding director of the Indian Institute of Science in the course of a long and productive career as a chemist in both academe and industry…  still he was, from his days with Ramsey, known in scientific circles as “Rare Gas Travers.”


Written by LW

August 25, 2012 at 1:01 am


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