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29th December 2022

12 days of Christmas: Five gold astronaut visors

On the 5th day of our 5 days of Christmas, find out about the scientific properties of gold!
12 days of Christmas: Five gold astronaut visors
Photo Marc Majam @ Pexels

Gold has long been coveted by humankind – illustrated by the gold rush free-for-alls that swept the world during the 19th century. Its rarity and lustrous shine means people throughout the ages have used it to craft jewellery and sacred artefacts. 

We have also used gold in medicine for centuries. Historical sources as early as the Roman Empire record the use of gold compounds to treat ailments, this is something we still do today. Sodium aurothiomalate and auranofin are both gold-containing drugs used to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, and auranofin could even be used to help treat HIV too.

Although gold compounds can be used in medicine, elemental gold itself is extremely unreactive. As a result of its reluctance to engage in chemical reactions, it’s perfectly safe to eat! So safe, in fact, that it has its own E-number: E175. Edible gold is used to craft the most indulgent, extravagant dishes possible, such as the ‘gold steak’ available at Nusret Gökçe’s (a.k.a. Salt Bae) restaurants around the world.

Gold also has uses in science and technology, especially in space. As a good reflector of electromagnetic radiation gold has found its way into the visors on astronaut’s helmets, completing their iconic look and shielding their retinas from the power of the sun.

The recently-launched James Webb Space Telescope also takes advantage of gold’s reflectivity by having a microscopic coating of the metal on its primary mirror. Gold was chosen as it is especially good at reflecting infrared radiation – the main type of light the telescope will observe.

Its beauty, scarcity, and numerous useful physical and chemical properties mean gold has been used, worn, and eaten by humans for centuries. We may not use actual gold coins anymore, but as you can see from these examples we won’t be abandoning it any time soon.

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